Solving The Riddle Of Why Matter Exists

Throughout the millenia, philosophers, theologians and scientists have pondered the simple question: Why are we here? Science News writer Ron Cowen discusses results from the Fermi Lab's particle collider which may help explain the preponderance of matter, not anti-matter, in the universe.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

One of the mysteries of the universe and pondered by scientists, philosophers and theologians for centuries is the really big question: why are we here? Why are there galaxies, planets, humans, Twinkies, all of this matter? Where did it come from? Why is the universe almost entirely matter and not the infamous antimatter instead?

Well, a new experiment from the Tevatron particle collider at the Fermilab may give us a few clues about that.

Joining me now to talk about that, plus a few tidbits of news from this week's meeting at the American Astronomical Society is my guest, the guy who puts the ron in astronomy, Ron Cowen...

Mr. RON COWEN (Astronomy Writer, Science News)

FLATOW: ...a physicist writer at Science News in Washington. Welcome to the program, Ron.

Mr. COWEN: Thanks very much.

FLATOW: You can find Ron's blog over at sciencenews.org. Let's get into this idea. Tell us about this experiment at Fermilab.

Mr. COWEN: Okay. Well, in this experiment, photons and antiphotons or a collider together. And, you know, anytime matter meets up with antimatter, the two destroy each other. They're like the equal and opposite counterparts, so you get pure energy.

But, anyway, but some particles were created in this experiment and - actually, matter and antimatter was created in particular, very short-lived type of elementary particle called B meson and it's antiparticle, the anti-B meson.

And the thing of it is that what they found was, that there seem to be no equal numbers of B mesons and anti-B mesons were produced when these very short-lived particles each decayed(ph), you ended up with a little bit more, about one percent more matter than antimatter.

And the reason that's so important is that we believe that when the universe began and the Big Bang, there were equal parts matter and antimatter. And if it stayed that way the whole time, they would have destroyed each other on contact and there would just be pure energy. Somehow or other, there had to be an imbalance.

And the imbalance had to have happened, we think, pretty soon after the birth of the universe. And the standard model of particle physics says, well, there could be a little bit of imbalance, a little bit more of matter than antimatter, but it wouldn't even be enough to make one single galaxy.

This experiment is saying, you know what? At very high energies, there are some other difference between matter and antimatter that we don't understand yet, and that enough matter - more matter is made than antimatter, to create galaxies and planets and people and everything around us today.

FLATOW: So that one percent really makes a difference for all the matter we're seeing today over time, I guess over the billions of years.

Mr. COWEN: Yes. I mean, that one percent is, even though tiny, is much, much more than what the standard model permits. And they think this could be the answer. They're not sure, one caveat is that there might be other reactions that went on when the universe was still hot and still energetic. We're talking about a trillionth of a second after the birth of the universe. And there could be other reaction going on. This may not be the one.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. COWEN: But it could be, and so what's they're so giddy and excited about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Let's talk about another bit of news from the Astronomical Society meeting, the discovery of a really interesting planetary system that's very different from our own, right?

Mr. COWEN: Right, that's right. I mean, in our own solar system, pretty much all the planets orbit as if they're bugs glued on the same flat phonograph record. They all orbit in the same plane, on the same flat disk.

FLATOW: Save one, save one.

Mr. COWEN: Hmm?

FLATOW: Save one planet.

Mr. COWEN: I guess, is that...

FLATOW: I think Uranus is there something...

Mr. COWEN: Neptune or...

FLATOW: One of those, we'll have to check. I know there's one.

Mr. COWEN: Well, I have to check.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COWEN: But pretty much, they all lie in the same, on the same disk. So for the first time, they were able to look in detail at a planetary system beyond our own. It's a - the star which has these three planets, three planets, it's called Upsilon Andromedae. It's 45 light years away, which is relatively close. And, you know, you can't see the planets themselves, but you can measure properties based on the gravitation tug they exert on their parent star.

And they see that the two biggest planets, and they really are massive, they are many times more massive than Jupiter, orbit not like bugs on a phonograph disk, but at 30 degree angle to each other.

And so, you know, the system may have started like the sun in a nice flat disk, but it certainly evolved differently. And it's another sort of, you might call the slap in the face to the solar system that, you know - we like to think of our solar system perhaps as a typical planetary system, but it may not.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. COWEN: You know, we've already found all these huge Jupiter mass planets that are within roasting distance of their parent star, much closer than our innermost planet, Mercury, is to our sun. And now, here's another difference.

FLATOW: Interesting, interesting. And our last bit of news is about a black hole that is not in the center of its galaxy, like it is in ours, right?

Mr. COWEN: That's right. And we, you know, the standard picture has always been, you know, these super massive black holes, millions to billions times the mass of the sun. Well, you know, their gravity, they settle right into the center of their parent galaxy, maybe the galaxy forms around them.

But in this galaxy called M87, which has been studied a fair amount, we know there's a black hole there. And now they've seen that the super massive black hole's actually off-center by about 22 light years.

It may be that something - well, something definitely kick this black hole out of the center. It may have been that M87 suffered a collision with another galaxy, a few billion years ago, that also had a super massive black hole. And when those two met up, they together, when they coalesced, they kicked each other off-center. It's also possible - this galaxy ahs a big jet in the center, actually twin jets. One of the jets may have also kicked this off-center.

But it's an interesting finding and also, especially if the galaxy merger explanation is right, whenever you see an off-center black hole, it may be telling you, hey, this galaxy underwent some kind of violent collision in the past and may be a marker of that.

FLATOW: It's always great to have these things that no one expects...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COWEN: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...in astronomy and anywhere else. Well, thank you, Ron.

Mr. COWEN: Sure.

FLATOW: Thanks for coming on and taking time to talk with us. Have a good holiday weekend.

Mr. COWEN: You too, thank you.

FLATOW: Ron Cowen is the astronomy and physics writer at Science News in Washington and you can follow his blog at sciencenews.org.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.