Antimatter is one of the strangest curiosities of modern physics. Somehow antimatter is something that exists, but is paradoxically the opposite of something that truly exists as we understand it. And yet scientists at Fermilab have not only found a way to trap antimatter temporarily, but just ran an experiment where they did so for a thousand seconds. The antimatter experiment has profound implications if it means we could one day manufacture and transport the material in the future.
Of course in the mean time, it should be noted that the tip of a needle is comprised of several trillion atoms and this experiment captured only approximately 390 atoms. And though they were particularly large and unstable atoms, they were still too small to see with the naked eye.
But the experiment is big in a slightly different way. A similar experiment was performed last fall when they were able to capture antiatoms for a period no longer than a fraction of a second. This blink of an eye was expanded and improved on until scientists were able to keep the antiatoms in place for a bit longer. And that means now scientists will actually be able to for the first time perform physical experiments on antimatter – or maybe anti-physical ones.
The reason antimatter is such a point of interest for scientists is related to one of the most pressing questions of the century. If matter exists, and each action has an opposite and equal inaction, where is all of the antimatter? Why do we not see it in our every day lives? And as antimatter would essentially destroy anything it touched, a more serious question is, how could this universe exist in the first place given the current scientific model?
Of course the grabbing of antimatter also raises an interesting practical question as well. If we were to harness antimatter and be able to transport it, what could we do with it? Science fiction has run with the idea of antimatter before and promised us a world of antimatter weapons and power sources since the dawn of the golden age of sci-fi. But what might these objects look like in real life? An antimatter gun would essentially release a stream of these particles from a special containment field located within the weapon and release hydrogen that would essentially cancel out whatever it touched. The objects would gradually disappear with a tremendous release of energy along with it. An antimatter power source would likely generate power by harnessing the release of energy created when matter and antimatter collide. And while antimatter engines may still largely be a mystery, scientists are hoping to study antimatter’s interaction with gravity – and may inadvertently give birth to a new method of space travel one day. Of course antimatter factories like CERN have only created a tiny amount throughout their existence, but the material exists on Earth already in the form of lightning and other phenomena in trace amounts.