Humans have come a very long way on our journey to understand the universe. From classical astronomers charting the movements of the stars, to the recent discoveries of the Higgs boson and gravitational waves, mankind’s progress in exploring the relationships between matter, space and time has been astounding. Despite these achievements, some of the most fundamental questions in physics remain largely unanswered. Nearly everything to do with antimatter—the bizarro matter that theoretically makes up half of the universe—falls into this category, though scientists at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) may soon change that.
In rudimentary terms, antimatter is the opposite of matter—or more accurately, a mirror image of the matter that we interact with on a daily basis. Antimatter is made up of ‘antiparticles’, which are identical to normal atomic particles but have opposite charges. While matter contains positively charged protons, antimatter contains negatively charged antiprotons. Similarly, instead of the familiar negatively charged electrons, antimatter atoms are orbited by positrons, which carry a positive charge. Theoretically, there should be equal amounts of matter and antimatter occupying the universe. In reality, though, antimatter is elusive stuff. Current research involving the creation of antimatter may hold the key to unravelling one of the universe’s great mysteries.
The foundation for our understanding of antimatter was laid during the first half of the 20th century, by several giants of modern physics. In 1905, then patent clerk Albert Einstein published a paper describing his theory of special relativity. His theory, which was remarkably produced with thought experiments (ie: just thinking), put forth an explanation for the relationship between space and time that revolutionised our understanding of the universe.
A second major leap forward came in the mid 1920s, when Erwin Schrödinger (of Schrödinger’s cat fame) and Werner Heisenberg produced the basis for quantum theory. Their ideas gave rise to quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle and the multiverse concept—forever changing how scientists think about the behaviour of energy and matter on atomic and subatomic levels. Unfortunately, their vision of quantum theory wasn’t compatible with Einstein’s theory of special relativity, as it failed to accurately describe the behaviour of particles moving at or near the speed of light. This gap was closed in 1928, when British physicist Paul Dirac developed an equation that bridged special relativity and quantum theory.