Experiment Offers First Glimpse Inside Antimatter Atom


(Mar. 7, 2012) — Two Simon Fraser University scientists are part of an international team that has for the first time successfully used microwaves to manipulate antihydrogen atoms. Their work could help answer fundamental questions about the universe.

Researchers will now start to measure the natural resonance frequencies of anti-hydrogen atoms and compare their findings against similar measurements on normal hydrogen atoms.

“This comparison is motivated in part by a question that has baffled scientists for a long time,” says SFU physics professor Mike Hayden, lead author of the research paper published in Nature March 7. “The known laws of physics tell us that matter and antimatter should naturally exist in equal amounts. The problem is that we seem to live in a universe that is almost entirely devoid of antimatter.

“A possible explanation is that there might be some subtle difference between matter and antimatter, which let matter win out over time as the universe evolved. If a difference between hydrogen and anti-hydrogen is discovered, it could provide a valuable clue for solving this mystery.”

Antimatter is a staple of science fiction, but it also stands out as one of the biggest mysteries of science fact. Enter microwave spectroscopy, one of the most sensitive techniques for probing the structure of atoms.

The present measurement, which was conducted by the ALPHA collaboration at CERN in Switzerland, involved irradiating magnetically-trapped anti-atoms with microwaves. Precise tuning of the microwave frequency and magnetic field enabled researchers to hit an internal resonance, kicking atoms out of the trap and revealing information about their properties.

“This experiment opens the door to precision comparisons of matter and antimatter,” says SFU PhD candidate Mohammad Ashkezari, who is already working on installing a major upgrade to the apparatus. “Eventually measurements like this will reveal clues that may help solve one of the deepest mysteries in particle physics.”

They might even help us understand why a universe made of matter exists at all.

“We have just witnessed the first-ever interactions between microwaves and trapped antimatter atoms,” says Hayden. “It is very satisfying to know that Canadians played key roles in the success of this experiment, and that our contributions are highly valued by our international collaborators.”


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