Mike Hayden, Antimatter Explorer

Click here for Mike's research website.

What got you into doing this research?

Mike’s expertise is in the study of hydrogen, the simplest atom in the universe. He was busy helping build atomic hydrogen clocks, or masers, incredibly precise clocks that can be used for navigating spacecraft in outer space. When the first anti hydrogen was produced, Mike was captivated. Anti hydrogen is the exact opposite of the hydrogen matter he was studying to make clocks. Mike likes a challenge, and he got it. We know that every particle has an antimatter counterpart, but unlike matter which we can touch and see, antimatter is much trickier to handle. If it comes into contact with ordinary matter, it (and the ordinary matter!) are destroyed, just like the antimatter in pumpkins.

So he works at CERN and SFU with powerful magnets to develop ways to trap antimatter and then study it, all to try and understand the universe better. In the first year they trapped 38 particles, now they can trap that many in a day. Lasting around 15 minutes, this is long enough for Mike’s team to probe them to begin to study their behaviour.

Why is this research important?

The problem is that everything we know about physics tells us that matter and antimatter should have been created in equal proportions following the Big Bang. If this is the case, what happened to all of the antimatter? Where did it all go? This is a real mystery. It points to a serious gap in our understanding of the way things work.

Our experiments with antimatter are designed to poke and prod, looking for some gap in our knowledge. Is there perhaps some unknown feature of antimatter that ultimately let matter get the upper hand?

What do you love about it?

“I love it because I love challenges. Nothing about making and studying antimatter atoms is easy. It is immensely satisfying when every last part of a hugely complex apparatus can be coaxed into functioning in just the right way, and at just the right time. And, it is fun to go to work and contribute to something that is so exciting.” Imagine if every day your challenge was to try to figure out what we don’t understand about the way the universe works. Pretty cool! 

Mike and other members of the Canadian group at ALPHA.
The Antiproton Decelerator provides beams of low-energy antiprotons to experiments, mainly for studies of antimatter (Image: CERN)