SFU researchers shine light on antimatter

January 30, 2017

SFU physics professor Mike Hayden and PhD student Justine Munich are part of the ALPHA Collaboration, an international team that recently discovered antihydrogen atoms react the same way as regular hydrogen atoms when irradiated with laser.


By Wan Yee Lok

Simon Fraser University physics professor Mike Hayden and PhD student Justine Munich are part of the ALPHA Collaboration, an international team that has recently shone light on antimatter—literally.

 In a study published in Nature on Jan. 26, the ALPHA Collaboration reports that when antihydrogen atoms are irradiated with a laser they respond in the same way as an ordinary hydrogen atom.  

“Although antimatter might sound like science fiction, it is something that is pretty well understood,” says Hayden. “Every subatomic particle has an antimatter counterpart or ‘mirror image’ of itself. And, when matter and antimatter meet … Kapow! They annihilate one another.”

While physicists think that matter and antimatter were created in large quantities after the Big Bang, today the universe is made almost entirely of matter.

“Despite enormous progress in our understanding of the universe, there are still a few holes in the best theories,” says Munich. “No one is quite sure what happened to all the antimatter.”

One possibility is that a subtle difference may have let matter win out over time. The only way to find out is to test how antimatter behaves.

“Scientists have wanted to put antimatter atoms under the microscope for decades,” says Hayden. “We had a breakthrough moment in 2010 when we finally managed to trap antihydrogen atoms in a magnetic bottle. Ever since, the team has been poking and prodding, trying to figure out just how closely antihydrogen mirrors the ordinary hydrogen atom.”

Results from the new study reveal that when antihydrogen atoms are irradiated with laser light at a very particular wavelength, they respond in the same way as an ordinary hydrogen atom would.

Munich says that the point of this work isn’t about finding practical applications, but rather about trying to understand the universe in which we live, at a very fundamental level.

“It’s thrilling to be a part of such a collaboration, to work with incredibly gifted scientists and to actively contribute to these fundamental physics measurements,” says Munich. “It’s hard to describe the feeling of being there in the control room while the debates are going on. ‘Can we improve the trapping rate?’ ‘Dare we try this or that?’ Participating in these discoveries as they are made is truly breathtaking.”