Irish scientists help trap antimatter at Cern lab


IT SOUNDS more like science fiction than science fact, but scientists, including two from Ireland, have created and trapped antimatter. The achievement allows antimatter to be held and studied, helping to deliver a deeper understanding of the nature of the universe.

As any Star Trekfan can explain, if ordinary matter – all the stuff you see around you – and antimatter come into contact, they immediately annihilate one another in a flash of energy.

A research team at Cern, Europe’s nuclear research centre, has managed to isolate the antimatter, trapping it with a combination of powerful magnets and frigid temperatures close to absolute zero.

Dubliner Dr Paul Bowe has run Cern’s antimatter experiments for the past decade, and as long ago as 2002 he helped create antihydrogen atoms in the lab.

The new advance is not just to make the antihydrogen but to manage to hold onto it so it can be studied. Eoin Butler from Kilkenny has spent the last three years working on his PhD at Cern, focusing on building equipment that could trap the antimatter.

Details of the research are published this morning in the journal Nature. It involved Cern scientists and researchers from the University of Liverpool and Swansea University, where Mr Butler will soon receive his PhD.

Antimatter is like a mirror image of ordinary matter in all respects, except for a reversal of the electrical charges needed to hold atoms together, Dr Bowe said yesterday. When matter and antimatter meet, it is like a short-circuit that destroys both in a flash of energy.

Cosmologists believe that equal amounts of matter and antimatter were formed in the Big Bang that created the universe. “The peculiar thing is only matter has persisted today,” Dr Bowe said.