What's the matter with antimatter? Scientists want to know

This illustration shows what might happen when matter and antimatter annihilate each other.

Story highlights

  • Scientists have long hypothesized that the Big Bang produced lots of antimatter
  • It no longer exists in nature, physicists say
  • It is produced on Earth in particle accelerators
  • Physicists study it to learn more about the formation of the universe
Nuclear scientists in Switzerland recently dropped some antimatter. The world didn't blow up, but there were some tiny explosions.
Scientists are hoping the experiment will teach them more about how the universe developed after the Big Bang.
Physicists with ALPHA Collaboration research group are trying to figure out how antimatter interacts with gravity, and if it produces "antigravity," says the group's founder, Jeffrey Hangst.
Their experiment mirrors the way Sir Isaac Newton came up with the law of gravity in the late 17th century.
Legend has it that an apple fell off a tree and hit the English nobleman on the head.
Newton got to thinking how gravity made the apple speed up as it fell.
General views of the ALPHA experiment at CERN in Switzerland.
He postulated that matter attracts matter via gravitational force, which is why an object like an apple would fall toward a larger object: the earth.
So, if matter attracts matter, what happens when antimatter interacts with it?
Will it produce antigravity? And would then a ball of antimatter fall up?
Gravity with a twist
"That would be a revolution," Hangst says. "That would mean we don't understand something fundamental about the universe."
And a big piece of the puzzle is indeed missing, he admits.
Though people live with the effects of gravity every day and Newton's law of gravity has been around for over 300 years, scientific understanding of gravity is lagging, he says.
This is the trap used to combine or "mix" positrons and antiprotons to make antihydrogen, according to CERN.
"The way planets and stars move, we understand that well." But how matter attracts matter on a molecular level is still greatly a mystery, Hangst says. The ALPHA Collaboration hopes to raise the level of understanding.
Antimatter science vs. fiction
Antimatter may be the stuff of science fiction movies and novels, but it is hardly futuristic, according to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, where Hangst's group runs its experiments.
Scientists have known about antimatter for more than 80 years, after physicist Carl Anderson discovered positrons in the 1930s.
CERN makes the antimatter for ALPHA's experiment using a particle accelerator, which speeds up subatomic particles to nearly the speed of light and crashes them into each other to produce new particles.
In the world of Dan Brown's "Angels and Demons" and Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek," antimatter can make the Vatican explode or power a star ship.
If a large chunk of antimatter were to touch a large chunk of mat