Scientists claimed a breakthrough on Thursday in solving one of the biggest riddles of physics, successfully trapping the first “anti-atom” that they hope will help them understand what happened to all of the antimatter created by the Big Bang.
The international team of physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, managed to create an atom of anti-hydrogen and then hold onto it for long enough to demonstrate that it can be studied in the lab.
“For us it's a big breakthrough because it means we can take the next step, which is to try to compare matter and antimatter,” the team's spokesperson, American scientist Jeffrey Hangst, said.
For decades, researchers have puzzled over why antimatter seems to have vanished from the universe. Theory posits it was created in equal amounts as matter at the moment of the Big Bang, which created the universe some 13.7 billion years ago. But while matter — defined as having mass and taking up space — went on to become the building block of everything that exists, antimatter has disappeared except in the lab.
Scientists have long been able to create individual particles of antimatter such as anti-protons, anti-neutrons and positrons. Since 2002, they have also managed to lump these particles together to form anti-atoms, but until recently none could be trapped for long enough to study them, because atoms made of antimatter and matter annihilate each on contact.
“It doesn't help if they disappear immediately upon their creation,” said Hangst. “So the big goal has been to hold onto them.” Two teams have been competing for that prize at CERN, the world's largest physics lab best known for the Large Hadron Collider.
Hangst's ALPHA team got there first, beating the rival ATRAP team led by Harvard physicist Gerald Gabrielse.