Physicists Have Captured The First Spectral Fingerprints of Antimatter

Antihydrogen

It’s been about nine months since a team of CERN researchers succeeded in their goal of measuring the spectrum of light emitted from hydrogen’s mirror particle, antihydrogen.

antimatter positrons supernova milky way
Image Source: Tod Strohmayer/NASA

They were just getting started. Now the researchers have detailed evidence of the structure of antihydrogen using spectroscopy, setting a landmark in our quest to determine why there is something in the Universe rather than nothing.

Led by Canadian researchers under what’s called the ALPHA Collaboration, the first detailed observation of “home made” antihydrogen’s structure has shown its spectral lines are virtually identical to those of hydrogen.

Had they been even slightly different this would be quite a different story, one heralding a crack in our models on the Universe that could reveal why it looks the way it does.

One of the current big mysteries facing modern physics is the question of why everything seems to be made of one kind of matter, when there are two kinds.

The Standard Model of physics predicts that all particles have something of a twin; a matching particle that has mirror properties, such as an opposite charge.

For example, the negatively charged electron has a positively charged partner called a positron.

These particles form together as a pair. What’s more, if the opposing kinds of particles meet, they cancel out in a blaze of gamma radiation.

That leaves the question why there is so much of one kind of matter, and not just an empty Universe humming with radiation.

If there was some kind of imbalance in the apparent symmetry of the Universe, it would go a long way to explaining why we ended up with enough matter sticking around after the Big Bang to build a couple trillion galaxies.

Looking for a difference in the two kinds of matter is as good a place to start as any.

Step number one is getting enough antimatter in one place, which is no easy task.

The ALPHA Collaboration managed to do it by cranking up CERN’s Antiproton Decelerator and churning out about 90,000 antiprotons.

To make the element antihydrogen, they needed to couple each antiproton with a positron.

Even after making 1.6 million positrons, the researchers only managed to make about 25,000 antihydrogen atoms.

A relative handful of these were slow enough to be trapped inside a special force field that kept them from touching ‘normal’ matter and vanishing in a blink of light.

“We have to keep them apart,” says researcher Justine Munich.

“We can’t just put our anti-atoms into an ordinary container. They have to be trapped or held inside a special magnetic bottle.”

In all, the team managed to trap and detect just 194 atoms over a number of trials, which gives you some idea of the difficulties involved in studying even the simplest forms of antimatter.

Fortunately it was enough to irradiate a sample of antihydrogen with microwaves of varying frequencies and observe their reaction.

Spectroscopy

When a unit of electromagnetic radiation such as a microwave hits an electron, it absorbs it and changes position. Bouncing back, it spits out its own wave of light.

Different elements absorb and emit their own spectrum of light at specific wavelengths, producing  a pattern that tells physicists a lot about the structure of the atom producing them.

“Spectral lines are like fingerprints. Every element has its own unique pattern,” says researcher Michael Hayden from Simon Fraser University.

Theoretically as mirrors of the same element, hydrogen and antihydrogen should share this pattern.

Earlier research suggested this was true, but the detail wasn’t clear enough to be conclusive.

For the first time, researchers have found a way to capture fine details of antihydrogen’s spectral lines and show they are in fact identical to hydrogen.

Radiating the antihydrogen atoms with microwaves allowed the physicists to determine its light fingerprint in a rather indirect way, using specific changes in the antihydrogen that caused them to eject from the magnetic bottle to fine tune estimates on its spectral lines.

“Spectroscopy is a very important tool in all areas of physics. We are now entering a new era as we extend spectroscopy to antimatter,” says Jeffrey Hangst, spokesperson for the ALPHA experiment.

“With our unique techniques, we are now able to observe the detailed structure of antimatter atoms in hours rather than weeks, something we could not even imagine a few years ago.”

Right now, the comparison has shown the effectiveness of using spectroscopy rather than resulting in monumental new physics. But new tools like these are going to be important in studying antimatter in the future.

“By studying the properties of anti-atoms we hope to learn more about the Universe in which we live,” says Hayden.

“We can make antimatter in the lab, but it doesn’t seem to exist naturally except in miniscule quantities. Why is this? We simply don’t know. But perhaps antihydrogen can give us some clues.”

This research was published in Nature.

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Delta aims to replace boarding passes with fingerprints

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Delta passengers can now use their fingerprints as a boarding pass

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Delta started testing its biometric boarding procedure in May. The fingerprinting process allows customers to board an aircraft or enter Delta Sky Club lounges without their ID and ticket. Delta says the final phase of its biometric boarding pass test, which is due “this summer,” will allow customers to also use their fingerprints to check-in bags.

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Synthetic, Microscopic Fingerprints Turn Tiny Plastic Particles Into Security Keys

Plastic Prints

Researchers at South Korea’s Kyung Hee University have developed a technique for creating microscopic, randomly-generated wrinkles on the surfaces of plastic particles. Each set of these wrinkles is entirely unique, and can be used to create security keys that are impervious to duplication. The process is also cheaper and easier than laser etching.

Wook Park, a member of the team who created the technique, told New Scientist that it would be almost impossible to clone security keys made with this method. This high level of security arises from the process itself, which involves coating the particles in silica, soaking them in ethanol, and drying them. The drying process causes wrinkles to form in the silica layer coating the treated particles, which is the source of the fingerprint-like pattern. The drying of the materials itself causes random patterns, but so do other factors such as the presence of dust or other foreign matter in the materials and minuscule temperature irregularities.

Higher Tech Security Measures

Especially when viewed up close, the plastic wrinkles bear a notable resemblance to human fingerprints — and the resemblance is more than superficial. These synthetic prints may one day be able to replace actual human fingerprints or identity cards because each set is completely unique, and can, therefore, be reliably used to verify a person’s identity. The “fingerprint” particles could also be attached to valuables for tracking or authentication.

Image Credit: Bae, Bae, Yoon, Park, Kim, Kwon, and Park/Science
Image Credit: Bae, Bae, Yoon, Park, Kim, Kwon, and Park/Science
Although the print patterns are unique, researchers do have some control over their formation. As part of the technique, the team came up with a way to use light exposure to produce a “decision point,” which is a hardened point in the pattern. The wrinkles either bend, finish, or split at this point. This ability to control some parameters could allow for shared information in a series — for example, a series of keys to a business might have identical portions that open common doors. The team is now working to develop a less bulky conductive scanner that reads the surface for electrical information which might be the most practical option for using the prints in security systems.This development is in line with other advanced personalized identity verification technologies that are moving beyond fingerprints. For example, researchers have found that people can create and maybe one day use, for security purposes, a unique signature, a brainprint. Lip reading computers are also on the horizon, and they will combine the security of a password with the additional unique distinguishing traits of physical movements. As we face increasing cybersecurity threats moving forward, technologies like these will develop to help us stay safe.

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