In 1930, Paul Dirac developed the first description of the electron that was consistent with both quantum mechanics and special relativity. One of the remarkable predictions of this theory was that an anti-particle of the electron should exist. This antielectron would be expected to have the same mass as the electron, but opposite electric charge and magnetic moment. In 1932, Carl Anderson, was examining tracks produced by cosmic rays in a cloud chamber. One particle made a track like an electron, but the curvature of its path in the magnetic field showed that it was positively charged. He named this positive electron a positron. We know that the particle Anderson detected was the anti-electron predicted by Dirac. In the 1950's, physicists at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory used the Bevatron accelerator to produce the anti-proton, that is a particle with the same mass and spin as the proton, but with negative charge and opposite magnetic moment to that of the proton. In order to create the anti-proton, protons were accelerated to very high energy and then smashed into a target containing other protons. Occasionally, the energy brought into the collision would produce a proton-antiproton pair in addition to the original two protons. This result gave credibility to the idea that for every particle there is a corresponding antiparticle.

A particle and its antimatter particle annihilate when they meet: they disappear and their kinetic plus rest-mass energy is converted into other particles (E = mc2). For example, when an electron and a positron annihilate at rest, two gamma rays, each with energy 511 keV, are produced. These gamma rays go off in opposite directions because both energy and momentum must be conserved. The annihilation of positrons and electrons is the basis of Positron Emission Tomography (PET) discussed in the section on Applications (Chapter 14). When a proton and an antiproton annihilate at rest, other particles are usually produced, but the total kinetic plus rest mass energies of these products adds up to twice the rest mass energy of the proton (2 x 938 MeV).

Antimatter is also produced in some radioactive decays. When 14C decays, a neutron decays to a proton plus an electron and an electron antineutrino, . When 19Ne decays, a proton decays to a neutron plus a positron, e+, and an electron neutrino, .

14C --> 14N + e- +

19Ne --> 19F + e+ +

The neutrino and electron are leptons while the antineutrino and positron are anti-leptons. Leptons are point-like particles that interact with the electromagnetic, weak and gravitational interaction, but not the strong interaction. An antilepton is an antiparticle. In each reaction, one lepton and one antilepton is produced. These processes show a fundamental law of physics - that for each new lepton that is produced there is a corresponding new antilepton.

Although from a distance matter and antimatter would look essentially identical, there appears to be very little antimatter in our universe. This conclusion is partly based on the low observed abundance of antimatter in the cosmic rays, which are particles that constantly rain down on us from outer space. All of the antimatter present in the cosmic rays can be accounted for by radioactive decays or by nuclear reactions involving ordinary matter like those described above. We also do not see the signatures of electron-positron annihilation, or proton-proton annihilation coming from the edges of galaxies, or from places where two galaxies are near each other. As a result, we believe that essentially all of the objects we see in the universe are made of matter not antimatter.

Elementary particle physicists create massive particles by accelerating lower mass particles close to the speed of light, and then smashing them together. The mass/energy of the colliding particles becomes the mass of the created particles. One method includes taking positrons and electrons, accelerating both of them, and smashing them into each other. Out of this energy, very massive particles such as quarks, tau-particles, and the Z0 can be created. Studies of such electron-positron annihilations are carried out at the Stanford Linear Accelerator and at the LEP facility at CERN. A similar technique is used at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory except that it involves colliding protons with anti-protons. Collisions of this kind were recently used to produce the sixth type of quark, known as the top. This particle has a rest mass energy of approximately 160,000 MeV, which is nearly the same as the mass of nucleus of a gold atom!

Atoms of anti-hydrogen, which consist of a positron orbiting an antiproton, are believed to have been created in 1995 at the CERN laboratory in Europe. Physicists are now searching for very small differences between the properties of matter atoms and antimatter atoms. This will help confirm or confound our understanding of the symmetry between matter and anti-matter.

Last Updated 11/18/04