Saturday, November 20, 2010

Antihydrogen Atoms Created And Captured

... at CERN, of course, in Switzerland. Yes, American scientists (from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley) were involved. No, we don't have the equipment to do it here. Thank you, Ronald Reagan and two Bushes, for murdering the funding of basic research in the United States.

A hydrogen atom comprises one proton and one electron. An antihydrogen atom comprises one antiproton and one antielectron, more typically called a positron. It's sort of a hydrogen atom with the charges reversed (and possibly other differences). When an atom meets its antiatom, both annihilate, releasing a lot of energy. I've also read that an atom of antihydrogen looks mathematically just like an atom of hydrogen moving backward in time.

But the universe contains almost entirely hydrogen atoms, not antihydrogen atoms: antimatter of any sort is exceedingly rare. Why? What's the difference that leads to the drastic imbalance? How did the imbalance come about? What are the particulars of the difference in the physics of hydrogen and antihydrogen? Those are the questions to be answered, and the accomplishment of being able to create and capture antihydrogen is an important first step.

Why do all this? Hey, if you want to power the Starship Enterprise someday...

No, seriously: practically all the technology available to us today, for good and ill, is based on principles found in basic research in only the past 100 or so years. Basic research, fundamental science not aimed at known practical applications, is essential to the support of a civilized society. (Good judgment is also essential, and may be even scarcer in the United States than basic research.) Approximately the past five U.S. presidential administrations and 30 years of Congress have starved basic research. Applications of such research lag the research itself by anywhere between a couple of years and a goodly part of a century, so we are really depriving our grandchildren of those applications... and all because of our recent "give it to me now; forget basic research; give me what you can do without spending any money on basic research" attitude. Well and good... except that it means that the future belongs to other nations, not America.

(H/T Mark Esposito on Jonathan Turley's blog, whose remark at the beginning of a largely unrelated post led me to explore this topic. Political commentary above is entirely my own.)

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