Reflections on academic life Trapping antimatter “tremendously exciting” for Prof. Walter Hardy

A research team called the ALPHA Collaboration, with a strong contingent of Canadians, has trapped antimatter for the first time at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), the world’s largest particle physics lab located in Geneva, Switzerland. Their discovery was published in the November 18 edition of Nature.

UBC Physics and Astronomy professor Walter Hardy is part of the team at CERN, along with graduate students Sarah Seif El Nasr and Andrea Guiterrez. He shared his thoughts as news of the discovery broke.

How did you get involved in this project?

I and Mike Hayden, a UBC graduate and now professor of Physics at SFU, were asked to join the ALPHA project five years ago, mainly because of our work on cryogenic atomic hydrogen in the 1980s at UBC. Mike received his PhD in my group, working on precision spectroscopic measurements in atomic hydrogen in 1991. The ultimate goal of the ALPHA project is to use various spectroscopies to determine whether hydrogen and its anti-matter relative, anti-hydrogen, are identical or not.
First, however, the anti-hydrogen had to be produced, and then trapped. The Nature paper details the first successful trapping of antihydrogen, certainly in the world (and probably in the universe!).

Why is this project important?

One of the great mysteries of physics, and particle physics in particular, is: why does the universe consist entirely of matter? Somehow, during the formation on the universe, matter won out over anti-matter.

Conventional theories predict that matter and anti-matter are identical, except for having the opposite charge. So far, the experiments that can be done show this seems to be true, but not to the level of precision that one needs.

Studying anti-hydrogen, an anti-proton and an anti-electron, to the same precision as for hydrogen, has been a dream project for some time. After 10 years of effort, the all-important first step has been taken and precision studies of anti-hydrogen can begin.

What is your role moving forward?

Prof. Hayden and I have been involved in a variety of projects within the overall collaborative effort. With trapping established, our expertise in precision microwave spectroscopy becomes central to the efforts to compare hydrogen to anti-hydrogen.