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Nature’s tiny preference for matter, retold by CERN

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The eight toroid magnets can be seen surrounding the ATLAS calorimeter that is later moved into the middle of the detector. This calorimeter will measure the energies of particles produced when protons collide in the centre of the detector. Picture: CERN

The eight toroid magnets can be seen surrounding the ATLAS calorimeter that is later moved into the middle of the detector. This calorimeter will measure the energies of particles produced when protons collide in the centre of the detector. Picture: CERN

What is going on at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and what to make of its particle smashing agenda? The science media doesn’t do a good job of explaining, nor do the physicists. I had been wondering, with a kind of unease, what those extraordinary energies and monstrous temperatures were creating, and decided, on 28 November 2010, to ask CERN directly. This is the text of my letter:

Dear Sir,

In a press brief titled ‘Antimatter atoms produced and trapped at CERN’ there is an explanation given for some recent experiments done at CERN:

“For reasons that no one yet understands, nature ruled out antimatter. It is thus very rewarding, and a bit overwhelming, to look at the ALPHA device and know that it contains stable, neutral atoms of antimatter,” said Jeffrey Hangst of Aarhus University, Denmark, spokesman of the ALPHA collaboration. “This inspires us to work that much harder to see if antimatter holds some secret.”

I am an agricultural researcher, and am used to dealing with very practical matters. I therefore find it quite disturbing when a CERN spokesman says that “nature ruled out antimatter”, and yet you are trying to create it.

If something does not exist in nature, I can safely say that it does not for a good reason – just as there is a good reason why the coconut palm does not grow in a montane forest. What “secret” does CERN believe it can wrest out of something not found in our world? Why must this work at CERN be done only by defying nature’s “ruling out” of something?

ATLAS is a particle physics experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. This image is a "display of a highly asymmetric dijet event, with one jet with ET > 100 GeV and no evident recoiling jet", recorded by ATLAS in LHC lead-lead collisions. Picture: CERN

ATLAS is a particle physics experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. This image is a "display of a highly asymmetric dijet event, with one jet with ET > 100 GeV and no evident recoiling jet", recorded by ATLAS in LHC lead-lead collisions. Picture: CERN

Only half expecting a reply – after all I’m sure CERN must field several hundred queries a day – I took to reading up what I could on the CERN website. Describing itself as one of the world’s largest and most respected centres for scientific research, CERN (it is Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire in French) says “business is fundamental physics, finding out what the Universe is made of and how it works”. At CERN, “the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments are used to study the basic constituents of matter — the fundamental particles. By studying what happens when these particles collide, physicists learn about the laws of Nature”.

The instruments used at CERN are particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before they are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions. “Matter and antimatter were created in equal amounts at the Big Bang, yet today we seem to live in a Universe made entirely of matter. Nature appears to have a tiny preference, with just one particle of matter having survived for every billion particles of matter and antimatter that annihilated with each other after the Big Bang”.

CERN’s website has a short account of what it calls ‘The true story of antimatter” and another short account explaining Nature’s “tiny preference for matter”.

I was quite surprised then to receive today (30 Nov) a reply from the Press Office at CERN. This is what they said:

Dear Mr Goswami,

Antimatter is produced in nature constantly, for example in cosmic rays. When particles of antimatter are created they live for a very short time before annihilating with ordinary matter. We have observed similar phenomena in laboratories for decades.

Our research focuses on understanding why antimatter does not exist in large quantities in the Universe – why nature has a preference for matter. As a result of science’s research into antimatter, we now have a very widespread medical imaging technique – PET [positron emission tomography, which is used in clinical oncology] – that uses antimatter for the benefit of humankind. There are also experiments underway to investigate the use of antimatter in cancer therapy.

We hope this will reply to your questions. Best regards, CERN Press Office

Well, it is nice of them to take the trouble to reply. But I’m not much better off than before. If antimatter does not exist in large quantities in the Universe, Nature has a good reason for it to be so, and is CERN’s efforts with gigantic machinery, extraordinary energies and monstrous temperatures only to advance medical imaging? Certainly not. It is also to rewrite physics, as they remind us on the website. Still, do we really need all this fearsome atom smashing in order to do that. It seems somehow deeply anti-ahimsa.

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