One of the big questions in science is not just “why are we here?’ It’s, “why is anything here?” Scientists at CERN have been looking into this one over the last several years, and there’s still no good answer. In fact, the latest experiment from physicists working at the Swiss facility supports the idea that the universe doesn’t exist. It certainly seems to exist, though. So, what are we missing?
In particle physics, the Standard Model describes the four known fundamental forces in the universe: the gravitational, electromagnetic, weak, and strong. The first two have very clear consequences in the universe while the other two are detectable only at the subatomic scale. The Standard Model has been supported by experimentation, but it predicts that the big bang that created the universe would have resulted in equal amounts of matter (us and everything around us) and antimatter (rare). If they were equal, why didn’t the early universe cancel itself out, leaving just a sea of energy?
Scientists have been searching for some feature of matter or antimatter that would have made the early universe asymmetrical. The problem, however, is that antimatter is extremely difficult to study. It has the opposite charge and quantum properties as normal matter, so it instantly annihilates when it comes in contact with normal matter. Scientists have been able to determine that antimatter has symmetric mass and charge, but researchers at CERN’s Baryon–Antibaryon Symmetry Experiment (BASE) have only just found a way to analyze its magnetic moment — the way it responds to magnetic interactions.
The BASE experimental rig.
There’s no container in the world that can store antimatter on its own because all containers are made of matter. However, the team developed a special super-cold chamber that used a magnetic field to suspend antiprotons — essentially an anti-hydrogen nucleus. The sample was suspended in the field for 405 days, allowing the BASE team to take exacting measurements of its magnetic moment. The result: −2.7928473441 nuclear magnetons. That’s the exact, symmetric opposite of a normal proton. The magnetic moment isn’t what caused the original imbalance in the universe.
The team is confident in the accuracy of this measurement, which they estimate to be 350 times more precise than past estimates of the antiproton’s magnetic moment. So, we still don’t know why the universe exists, but this isn’t the end of the investigation. The next step is to analyze the gravity of antimatter, and CERN is already working on that.
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