Staring into STAR. (Credit: From the Brookhaven National Laboratories’ Flickr stream).
The menagerie of bizarre sub-atomic particles just got stranger, as scientists at Long Islands Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider recently unveiled the discovery of the heaviest anti-particle yet discovered. Dubbed the antihypertriton, this strange beast sits at 200 milli-electron volts (for comparison, an electron volt about 1.602 x 10-19 joules), beating out old fashioned anti-helium. To make the discovery, scientists smashed heavy gold ions together after accelerating them at dizzying speeds and recording over a hundred thousand collisions. About 70 antihypertritons were created. So what, you say? Well, understanding the role of anti-matter in cosmology may go a long way towards understanding why there is anything at all. If the initial universe was symmetrical, equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have spontaneously annihilated moments after the Big Bang, and Galaxies, Earth, and Tiger Woods should have never come into existence. Either a fair amount of this stuff exists somewhere out there, or the universe we see and detect today is a remnant of that initial collision, and somehow only a slice of normal matter survived. Antimatter is similar to normal matter, except it is opposite in charge and magnetic properties. Antihypertritons are even more peculiar in that they are the first particle identified that would sit below the plane of a three dimensional periodic table. Some types of the familiar elements such as lithium, helium, and hydrogen are comprised of strange quarks, but antihypertritons are composed of… you guessed it anti-strange quarks.
The next name of the game may be to detect antihypertritons in nature. Fans of this space will already remember that NASA’s Fermi satellite has detected antimatter in the form of positron emissions (the sister particle of the humble electron) in terrestrial thunderstorms, and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer destined for installation on the International Space Station during the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour later this year may detect more strange anti-beasties in space. Just how does the role of anti-matter play into our universe? Are there anti-galaxies out there, populated by anti-beings, or did the anti-matter universe “sluice off” from ours into another membrane of existence? Whatever the case, devices such as the LHIC and CERN, and the AMS are heralding in a golden age of particle physics.