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Antimatter

A must-read classic of modern science

By Frank Close
12-minute read
Audio available
Antimatter by Frank Close

Antimatter (2010) is a detailed look at one of the most mysterious and misunderstood topics in physics: antimatter. This accessible guide explains what antimatter is, how it works, and what it can teach us about the universe.

  • Stargazers curious about the makeup of the universe
  • Sci-fi fans interested in the facts behind their favorite fiction
  • Anyone who has ever felt flummoxed by advanced physics

Frank Close is a physics professor at Oxford University, a Fellow of Exeter College, and the former head of the Theoretical Physics Division at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. He’s also the author of the best-selling books Lucifer's Legacy and Eclipse.

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Antimatter

A must-read classic of modern science

By Frank Close
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Antimatter by Frank Close
Synopsis

Antimatter (2010) is a detailed look at one of the most mysterious and misunderstood topics in physics: antimatter. This accessible guide explains what antimatter is, how it works, and what it can teach us about the universe.

Key idea 1 of 7

Antimatter is the mirror image of normal matter.

June 30, 1908. Far east of Moscow, deep in the remote region of Siberia, something astounding happens. Out of nowhere, an earth-shattering boom. A blast so powerful, it’s visible 700 kilometers away. A heat so intense, it melts silverware 60 kilometers away.

This is the Tunguska Event. This massive, mysterious explosion releases a burst of energy comparable to a nuclear detonation or meteor strike. Yet, at the time, atomic bombs are decades away and no meteorite is ever found at the site. So what caused this catastrophe? 

One possibility is antimatter. When this eerie, elusive substance comes into contact with everyday matter, it releases energy on a cosmic scale. Just one kilogram could kick off a reaction 100 times more powerful than nuclear fusion. It sounds like science fiction, but it is very, very real.

The key message here is: Antimatter is the mirror image of normal matter.

So, what is antimatter? To answer this question, it’s best to start with normal matter. Normal matter is made up of tiny particles called atoms. These atoms are made up of even tinier electrically charged particles called protons, neutrons, and electrons. In the center of each atom are protons, which have a positive charge, and neutrons, which have a neutral charge. Orbiting the center are electrons, which have a negative charge. A simple atom like hydrogen has a single positive proton at its center and a single negative electron orbiting it. 

Put simply, antimatter has exactly the same structure, but it’s inverted. An antihydrogen atom is a mirror image of a normal hydrogen atom. It has a single negatively charged proton, or antiproton, at its center, and a positively charged electron, called a positron, orbiting it.

Matter and antimatter need each other to exist, despite being opposites. Why? Well, Einstein's theory of relativity explains that all forms of matter are essentially energy trapped in a physical form – so an electron is pure energy distilled into a particle. But energy itself is neutral; while it can change forms, it can’t be created or destroyed. So when it congeals into a negatively charged electron, it must also produce the inverse: a positively charged proton. 

It’s a bit like digging a hole – to delve deeper into the ground, you must always pile up an equal but opposite mound of dirt. However, if matter and antimatter ever come into contact, they eliminate each other. And this elimination releases the huge amount of energy trapped in each substance in one massive gamma-ray burst.

Quote: “With antimatter, the negative image of matter, we make contact with the gods of creation.”

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