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PHYSICISTS have created the first atoms of
antimatter, giving scientists a glimpse of
what they say could be a "completely
new anti-world". This historical
achievement was announced on January
4, after months of careful checking of
data. According to scientists, it is quite
possible that the universe could contain
stars and planets which are made entirely of objects constituted of antimatter
that until now scientists could only
imagine but never thought would
emerge as reality. The antimatter atoms
were produced near Geneva in
Switzerland, last September, at the
European Laboratory for Particle
Physics (CERN) by physicist Walter
Oelert and his team from ErlangenNuremberg University in Germany.
Needless to say, the results of the tests
were a triumph for CERN.
Scientists at five other research centres, which include Harvard and
Chicago, were also working to produce
antimatter atoms. They had already
created anti-electrons, also called
positrons, and anti-protons, but had
really not succeeded in combining them
into an atom.
Ordinary atoms consist of a nucleus
made of protons and neutrons, surrounded by a variable number of particles which are called electrons. The
number of protons in the nucleus of an
atom determines what kind of an element it is. For instance, a hydrogen
atom is constituted of one proton plus
Antimatter atoms have the same
basic structure. But they are made up of
anti-particles. Every sub-atomic particle, like a proton, neutron or electron, is
known to have a corresponding anti-particle, which has the same mass and
spin, but an opposite electric charge. A
fascinating quality of antimatter is that
when it meets matter - the substance
that all things on Earth are made of -
the two substances instantly annihilate
each other while releasing a burst
In the laboratory experiments,
the antimatter atoms existed for
just 40 billionth of a second before
annihilation. The next step for
Oelert and his team was to trap and
hold the atoms of antimatter long
enough to compare them with
ordinary atoms. According to current scientific theories, both the
atoms should be exactly the same.
If they are not, then the understanding of the scientists about our
universe will be turned on its head.
"This discovery opens the door
into a completely new anti-world,"
exclaimed Neil Calder, a
spokesperson of CERN. "This may
be a tiny Alice in Wonderland
door ... through which we can get to
a completely new understanding of
the reality of the universe."
Scientists observing the event in
other places also hailed the discovery,
but said it was only the first step in a
long process. Gerald Gabrielse, a professor of physics at Harvard, described the
results as a "very interesting demonstration". But he said that further research
was needed to observe the antimatter
atoms at slower speed and compare
them with ordinary atoms, "We will
have to wait and see if we can compare
the atoms with high accuracy to see if
they are the same or not. That is where
the real punchline is," Gabrielse said.
John Eades, the British coordinator
of experiments at CERN said that the real
challenge had been in producing
enough of the right kind of collisions
between ordinary particles to create a
few anti-hydrogen atoms.
Understandably, anti-particles do
not exist naturally on Earth, but were
produced accidentally by scientists
some 50 years ago, when normal particles collided at tremendous speeds.
Now, despite having achieved the feat
which could be repeated in the laboratory, Oelert was "extremely pessimistic"
that his discovery would ever lead to a
new type of energy. "Even if it were possible to produce a lot of antimatter, the
technological problems of keeping it are
enormous, " he said.
Some scientists are already dreaming that antimatter might one day be
developed as a very high potency fuel to
be used for inerstellar rockets or super-bombs for, as antimatter gets annihilated
when combined with ordinary matter, it
converts mass to energy far more efficiently than does a nuclear bomb. Not a
very welcome idea to the anti-nuke lobby.
"We are especially interested in
hydrogen and anti -hydrogen," Fades
said, "not only because of their structural simplicity, but because 90 per cent
of the mass of the universe is hydrogen.
Even slight differences in the properties
of hydrogen and anti-hydrogen could
help explain why the universe, as we
know it, consists entirely of matter
rather than antimatter."