Monday, May 18, 2009

what's the matter with antimatter?

On a recent episode of the Daily Show, Tom Hanks was explaining his conversations with the particle physicists and his explanation of antimatter made me want to learn more. According to Hanks, certainly a preeminent authority on antimatter -- antimatter's been made in the lab, the world survived, and now the antimatter is gone because nobody was around on christmas break to push the buttons on the machine keeping the antimatter in existence. This reminds me of LOST.

The explanation of antimatter that CERN (which somehow stands for the European Organization for Nuclear Research) has created around Hanks' movie Angels & Demons is rather informative and understandable. But since you might not be as intrigued as I am, allow me to excerpt:

In the intense heat of the Big Bang, particles of matter were forged out of pure energy. But for every particle of matter created, a 'twin' was also born - an 'antiparticle' identical in mass but with opposite electric charge.

Our world is made of matter, which consists of three types of particles called electrons, protons and neutrons. Each particle has a specific mass and electric charge. For example, the electron has a negative charge, and the proton a positive charge.

Antimatter particles have the same mass as the particles that make up our world, but carry the opposite charge. For example, the electron, which has a negative charge, has an antimatter 'twin' with the same mass but the opposite charge; we call the 'anti-electron' a positron.

Particles and antiparticles go together. Imagine sitting on a sandy beach. When you dig a hole, you also create a pile of sand. One cannot be made without making the other: they are complementary - just like particles and antiparticles.

So, that sandy beach metaphor was pretty effective in helping my understanding of antimatter along and it reminds me again of LOST.

Back to what Mr. Hanks said -- I looked it up and indeed CERN made and stored antimatter for a wee bit of time. But it takes a lot of work and energy (literally) to trap antimatter and keep it separated from matter. The world record for storing antiparticles is held by the TRAP experiment at CERN: it kept a single antiproton in a Penning trap for 57 days! The scientists performed very precise measurements of its mass and charge before the trap was switched off and the antiproton ... annihilated. Fun fact: The British scientist John Dalton (1766-1844) who developed the atomic theory of matter, kept a meterological journal for 57 years from 1787 to 1844 (disclosure: I have not verified this fun fact's veracity).

Doesn't all this talk of beaches and twins and pushing a button to keep something in existence (or at bay) make you think of LOST? Indeed, these people have speculated on antimatter theory and LOST. I agree with the person who commented on 8/26/08 and think more recent episodes definitely support antimatter experimentation theories. I also agree that people with a better understanding of particle physics should contribute to the body of LOST theories immediately and encourage them to use the comments section of this post to do so.

In conclusion, I hope this post becomes the definitive conversation on theories of LOST related to particle physics or something like that.

Suggested reading:
Thank you, Tom Hanks, for making antimatter matter to me and to my gentle readers. Also, thank you to the writers, cast and crew of the television show LOST. Last but not least, this post was brought to you by the number 57 and the letter L.