Astronomically Speaking #6, published in the York University Gazette, March 2000
(With apologies to Lennie and Will)
SCENE: THE BRIDGE OF THE STARSHIP ENTERPRISE CHEKOV (LOOKING WORRIED): Keptin, you’d better take a look at this. [James T. Kirk, Captain of the Starship Enterprise, peers thoughtfully at the computer screen before him, showing a ship baring down on them. A strangely familiar ship …]
SPOCK: Interesting. If I’m not mistaken, Captain, that is the Starship Enterprise. KIRK: Spock … I thought we were the Starship Enterprise. SPOCK: Yes, Captain. We are. KIRK: Ah. UHURA: They seem to be hailing us! [There is a burst of static, then a face appears on the screen. A handsome and strangely familiar face …] VOICE: Greetings, Kirk! [Spock arches an eyebrow.] KIRK: My … God! I seem to be … talking … to myself! But … how … can that be? [Scottie bursts onto the bridge.] SCOTTIE: Jim! They’r-rr-e beaming aboar-rr-d! SPOCK: Captain, it is imperative that we stop them. KIRK: Spock, but … why? [Spock raises his other eyebrow.] SPOCK: I believe we have found … the anti-Kirk. [END OF SCENE]
Spock, being quite astute about such things, knows that if Kirk were to meet anti-Kirk, they would annihilate in a massive explosion of high-energy photons. A classic sci-fi plot device.
Except, we’re not making this up — antimatter does exist. Not only that, it is produced routinely in particle accelerators around the world.
The elementary particles that make up the Universe all have corresponding anti-particles — to name the most familiar, the electron has an anti-electron, ad the proton has an anti-proton. Anti-particles are identical to particles except they have the opposite electric charge. And, as Spock knew, if particle meets anti-particle, they spontaneously annihilate, their masses becoming a burst of energy.
At the birth of the Universe in the Big Bang when all matter was created, an equal amount of anti-matter also came into existence — the laws of physics dictate that this must be the case. A deep mystery to be solved, then, is this: why are we, our world, our Galaxy, everything we can see in the Universe, made only of out of matter?
The Earth is bombarded constantly by elementary particles from the galaxy and beyond. They’re all particles, not anti-particles. Nowhere in the Universe do we see great walls of annihilation as galaxies meet anti-galaxies. It seems everywhere we look, the only stable stuff we see is matter.
If the universe initially contained equal amounts of matter and anti-matter, then … where did all the anti-stuff go?
The famous Russian physicist Andre Sakharov (winner of both the Lenin Prize for creating the Hydrogen Bomb and the Nobel Peace Prize) proposed a solution to this puzzle.
Almost every law of physics treats matter exactly the same as anti-matter — an electron and a proton make a Hydrogen atom in exactly the same way that an anti-electron and an anti-proton make an atom of anti-Hydrogen.
But in a remote mathematical corner of theoretical particle physics sits a matrix (as opposed to THE Matrix, which is quite different) known as the Cabbibo-Kobayashi-Maskawa Matrix. It governs the relative strengths of different types of radioactive decay. As it happens, the CKM matrix shows that some of these decays favour the production of matter over anti-matter — but only to a very slight degree. For every billion anti-particles produced from radioactive decays, a billion plus one particles are created.
How could such a tiny surplus of matter over antimatter make any difference? Shortly after the Big Bang, the Universe was a seething broth of equal-parts matter and anti-matter. Particles collided with anti-particles and annihilated each other out of existence. As the Universe cooled, the laws of physics that drive radioactive decays were producing just that tiny bit more matter than anti-matter. The annihilation continued unabated, and quickly all the anti-particles and almost all the particles destroyed each other.
In the final count, just that one-part-in-a-billion surplus of matter particles was left.
Which means that everything we see around us is made up of that tiny excess of matter. If it weren’t for this very small imbalance in the laws of Nature, nothing would exist in the universe but a sea of wandering photons.
Captain’s log, Stardate 2291.3 Just past tea-time. Today, the Enterprise narrowly avoided catastrophe. My anti-self, seeking to … destroy us both in a … fireball … of heat and light, attempted to beam aboard. Fortunately, at the last minute, I was … saved — a minor actor, with very little character development and wearing a red shirt, tripped and fell onto the … transporter platform … just as the anti-Kirk materialised. They were both … instantly … destroyed. Mental note: must notify the recruitment office in the morning. Kirk out.