Okay, first disclaimer. I am NOT an expert in antimatter. I have only a basic understanding based on a bachelor’s degree in physics and a summer of particle physics research. But I wanted to clear something up, based on a conversation I had today. Second disclaimer: I am not trying to actually get into the details of particle physics theory here (on the off chance that anyone with that sort of knowledge drops by and is all, “Hey, well, actually…”). I’m hoping to convey a lay-understanding of this topic.
There seems to be a misconception that antimatter is something straight out of science fiction. That it is nearly unreal, right up there with time travel and warp speed.
Antimatter is real. It’s as real as you, me, computers, and rain. Antimatter isn’t something that we think we might be able to detect. It exists. We play with it. We use it.
What antimatter isn’t is inexplicable or bizarre or mysterious. I find that the name “antimatter” is misleading. It makes me think of alternate dimensions and opposite realities, and anti-mass – something that is the opposite of existence. But in actuality, the “anti” in antimatter refers only to the charge of the particles. Antiparticles are opposites of their “regular” counterparts in that they have all the same characteristics except their charge. So an anti-proton has the same mass as a normal proton, but a negative charge. A positron has the same mass as an electron, but a positive charge. And so on for more exotic particles. (This works for the neutron, too, (i.e. there is such a thing as an anti-neutron) but to explain it involves talking about quarks, which I don’t want to get into in this post. The charged particles are also explained by quarks, but it’s easier to talk about charge, which more people are familiar with.) In theory, we could have come up with a totally different name for the anti-proton. We could have called it…a furton! And then defined a furton as a particle with a charge of -1e and a mass of 1.67 x 10^-27 kg and a spin of 1/2 and all that. But since ALL the information was the same as the proton except the charge, it sure as heck seems a lot simpler to just call it the anti-proton and save ourselves the effort.
So antimatter exists. And frankly, it’s more like matter than unlike. But it’s different in a mirror-image-esque way that has caused us to use this unfortunate naming convention. Physicists have a sometimes-unfortunate tendency to enjoy poetry in their science. :)
P.S. Yes, there’s that whole messy business with matter and antimatter annihilating when they collide, but frankly that’s a whole different subject and isn’t, as far as I can tell, really understood by anyone yet (I base this belief on the fact that we weren’t taught the “conservation of matterness” rule in my particle physics course. Maybe in a decade it’ll be on the list). I’m hoping the Ph.D. process will clue me in to some more knowledge on this point. I’m really just trying to emphasize that antimatter exists and is part of our reality.