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Scientists announced a technological tour de force today. They used a laser to probe antimatter. That is a step towards understanding a big mystery - why there is so little antimatter in the universe. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Antimatter has fascinated Jeffrey Hangst for almost his whole life.
JEFFREY HANGST: The first time I heard about antimatter was on "Star Trek" when I was a kid.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")
LEONARD NIMOY: (As Mr. Spock) Bridge to engineering.
JAMES DOOHAN: (As Scotty) Aye, Mr. Spock, the emergency bypass control of the matter-antimatter integrator is fused.
HANGST: I was intrigued by what it was and then kind of shocked to learn that it was a real thing in physics.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He became a physicist. He now works at Aarhus University in Denmark, and he founded a research group at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, devoted to studying antimatter. Now, that is tricky to do.
Antimatter isn't like the regular matter you see around you every day. At the subatomic level, it's, like, the complete opposite. Your electrons have a negative charge. Its electrons have a positive charge. And whenever antimatter comes into contact with regular old matter, they both disappear in a flash of light.
HANGST: What you hear about in science fiction - that antimatter gets annihilated by normal matter - is a hundred percent true and is the greatest challenge in my everyday life.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Because if his team makes antimatter and then it touches the walls of its container, poof, it is gone. He and his colleagues have spent years figuring out how to make the antimatter version of simple hydrogen atoms. They then trap and hold these antiatoms in a vacuum using strong magnetic fields.
HANGST: And we can keep them for a long time. We've demonstrated we can keep them for sort of 15 minutes without losing them.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Today in the journal Nature, his team reports that they used a special laser to probe this antimatter. So far, what they see is that it responds to the laser in the same way that regular matter does. That's what the various theories out there would predict. Still, Hangst says it's important to check.
HANGST: We're kind of really overjoyed to finally be able to say that we've done this. For us, it's a really big deal.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Because understanding antimatter is an important step towards understanding why we even exist. When the universe first began, scientists think there should have been equal amounts of antimatter and matter. They should have destroyed each other completely.
HANGST: But something happened - something - some small asymmetry that led some of the matter to survive. And we simply have no good idea that explains that right now.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Theoretical physicists watch these experiments with awe. Chris Quigg works at Fermilab near Chicago.
CHRIS QUIGG: Just the concept that you can make an antiatom, an atom made out of antimatter, is a real gee-whiz thing. And anybody has to be impressed by that.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: There's a lot more subtle measurements of antimatter that need to be done. And Quigg says once experimentalists develop this kind of new tool, who knows what else they'll be able to do with it in the future? Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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