Image from CERN
Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
In the northwest suburbs of Geneva, Switzerland lies a complex of buildings that constitute the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or the European Council for Nuclear Research. The rest of the world knows it as CERN. With a name change, it is now the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire, making the new acronym OERN, but try to get that one past Robert Langdon. There, some 10,000 scientists, engineers and support staff are busily digging for the elusive secrets of the universe.
Since its inception in 1954, the facility has logged an impressive number of discoveries, mostly incomprehensible to the rest of us. In fact, I would venture to say that the only reason most us recognize CERN is because of Dan Brown’s novel “Angels and Demons.”
On November 18, 2010, the institute announced a startling breakthrough. For the first time in human history, they had not only created anti-matter, but kept it in existence for a period of time.
For once, this is a discovery even I can understand.
Anti-matter is the negative copy of everything that makes up our universe. One of the theories of how our existence came to be is that before the Big Bang, all the matter and energy that makes up the 500 billion or so galaxies was concentrated in an impossibly small mass of both matter and anti-matter. For reasons still not understood, the two came in contact with each other, triggering a massive explosion. The anti-matter vanished, and the matter spread out at incredible velocities creating the known universe. One of the questions that arose out of the Big Bang was what happened to the anti-matter.
The more scientists know about that event, and the conditions prior, the better they will understand the current state of things. And how (or if, or when) it will all end.
There are other considerations as well. The universe is matter and energy. The more we know about that energy, the closer we may come to solving some of the problems we now face.
For science fiction fans in general, and Star Trek fans in particular, anti-matter is the stuff that drives starships at warp speed across the cosmos; the ultimate source of free energy.
For the uninitiated, warp drive works like this. Streams of matter and anti-matter are focused through dilithium crystals into a chamber where the two are suspended in plasma, separated by powerful magnetic fields. A measured amount of each is combined, resulting in an explosive annihilation of both. The energy created in that reaction “warps” the fabric of space-time, essentially folding it like a piece of paper. The ship then jumps from one fold to the next, bypassing the space between. The higher the warp factor, the larger the folds. And thus, the ship and crew bound across the light years, turning the galaxy into essentially a large suburb.
Of course, in order to accept this premise, you have to ignore a lot of physics.
No material object can be accelerated past light speed. In fact, in Einstein’s famous equation, E=MC2 (energy equals mass times the speed of light, squared), suggests that at the speed of light, matter converts to pure energy. Now, that’s not a bad way to travel, all things considered, but who would reassemble the crew at the destination?
Also, traveling close to that barrier triggers a thing called time dilation. Essentially that means if you were to travel to the center of our galaxy at 90% of the speed of light, time slows down for you. In fact, that round trip, about 60,000 light years in length, could be completed in about 42 years, as time would be measured aboard ship. But back here on earth, some 60,000 years will have passed. That’s the span of evolutionary time that separates modern Homo Sapiens from the Neanderthal.
But Sci-Fi fans, myself included, never let the laws of physics get in the way of a good yarn.
For scientists, this discovery means one more wall between their questions and the universe’s answers has been penetrated. For those involved in energy research, this may be the first step on the road to a whole new world. But for the rest of us, life will go on as before. Whatever technological wonders develop from this discovery will take decades or centuries to affect our daily lives.
But it’s still nice to know that the future is on the way.