In 1905 Albert Einstein wrote four groundbreaking papers on quantum theory and relativity. It became known as Einstein’s annus mirabilis or wonderous year. One was on brownian motion, one earned him the Nobel prize in 1921, and one outlined the foundations of special relativity. But it’s Einstein’s last 1905 paper that is the most unexpected.Continue reading “Matter From Light. Physicists Create Matter and Antimatter by Colliding Just Photons.”
Lighting has always been a source of awe and mystery for us lowly mortals. In ancient times, people associated it with Gods like Zeus and Thor, the fathers of the Greek and Norse pantheons. With the birth of modern science and meteorology, lighting is no longer considered the province of the divine. However, this does not mean that the sense of mystery it carries has diminished one bit.
For example, scientists have found that lightning occurs in the atmospheres of other planets, like the gas giant Jupiter (appropriately!) and the hellish world of Venus. And according to a recent study from Kyoto University, gamma rays caused by lighting interact with air molecules, regularly producing radioisotopes and even positrons – the antimatter version of electrons.
The study, titled “Photonuclear Reactions Triggered by Lightning Discharge“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature. The study was led by Teruaki Enoto, a researcher from The Hakubi Center for Advanced Research at Kyoto University, and included members from the University of Tokyo, Hokkaido University, Nagoya University, the RIKEN Nishina Center, the MAXI Team, and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.
For some time, physicists have been aware that small bursts of high-energy gamma rays can be produced by lightning storms – what are known as “terrestrial gamma-ray flashes”. They are believed to be the result of static electrical fields accelerating electrons, which are then slowed by the atmosphere. This phenomenon was first discovered by space-based observatories, and rays of up to 100,000 electron volts (100 MeV) have been observed.
Given the energy levels involved, the Japanese research team sought to examine how these bursts of gamma rays interact with air molecules. As Teruaki Enoto from Kyoto University, who leads the project, explained in a Kyoto University press release:
“We already knew that thunderclouds and lightning emit gamma rays, and hypothesized that they would react in some way with the nuclei of environmental elements in the atmosphere. In winter, Japan’s western coastal area is ideal for observing powerful lightning and thunderstorms. So, in 2015 we started building a series of small gamma-ray detectors, and placed them in various locations along the coast.”
Unfortunately, the team ran into funding problems along the way. As Enoto explained, they decided to reach out to the general public and established a crowdfunding campaign to fund their work. “We set up a crowdfunding campaign through the ‘academist’ site,” he said, “in which we explained our scientific method and aims for the project. Thanks to everybody’s support, we were able to make far more than our original funding goal.”
Thanks to the success of their campaign, the team built and installed particle detectors across the northwest coast of Honshu. In February of 2017, they installed four more detectors in Kashiwazaki city, which is a few hundred meters away from the neighboring town of Niigata. Immediately after the detectors were installed, a lightning strike took place in Niigata, and the team was able to study it.
What they found was something entirely new and unexpected. After analyzing the data, the team detected three distinct gamma-ray bursts of varying duration. The first was less than a millisecond long, the second was gamma ray-afterglow that took several milliseconds to decay, and the last was a prolonged emission lasting about one minute. As Enoto explained:
“We could tell that the first burst was from the lightning strike. Through our analysis and calculations, we eventually determined the origins of the second and third emissions as well.”
They determined that the second afterglow was caused by the lightning reacting with nitrogen in the atmosphere. Essentially, gamma rays are capable of causing nitrogen molecules to lose a neutron, and it was the reabsorption of these neutrons by other atmospheric particles that produced the gamma-ray afterglow. The final, prolonged emission was the result of unstable nitrogen atoms breaking down.
It was here that things really got interesting. As the unstable nitrogen broke down, it released positrons that then collided with electrons, causing matter-antimatter annihilations that released more gamma rays. As Enoto explained, this demonstrated, for the first time that antimatter is something that can occur in nature due to common mechanisms.
“We have this idea that antimatter is something that only exists in science fiction,” he said. “Who knew that it could be passing right above our heads on a stormy day? And we know all this thanks to our supporters who joined us through ‘academist’. We are truly grateful to all.”
If these results are indeed correct, than antimatter is not the extremely rare substance that we tend to think it is. In addition, the study could present new opportunities for high-energy physics and antimatter research. All of this research could also lead to the development of new or refined techniques for creating it.
Looking ahead, Enoto and his team hopes to conduct more research using the ten detectors they still have operating along the coast of Japan. They also hope to continue involving the public with their research, a process that goes far beyond crowdfunding and includes the efforts of citizen scientists to help process and interpret data.
The Standard Model of particle physics has been the predominant means of explaining what the basic building blocks of matter are and how they interact for decades. First proposed in the 1970s, the model claims that for every particle created, there is an anti-particle. As such, an enduring mystery posed by this model is why the Universe can exist if it is theoretically made up of equal parts of matter and antimatter.
This seeming disparity, known as the charge-parity (CP) violation, has been the subject of experiments for many years. But so far, no definitive demonstration has been made for this violation, or how so much matter can exist in the Universe without its counterpart. But thanks to new findings released by the international Tokai-to-Kamioka (T2K) collaboration, we may be one step closer to understanding why this disparity exists.
First observed in 1964, CP violation proposes that under certain conditions, the laws of charge-symmetry and parity-symmetry (aka. CP-symmetry) do not apply. These laws state that the physics governing a particle should be the same if it were interchanged with its antiparticle, while its spatial coordinates would be inverted. From this observation, one of the greatest cosmological mysteries emerged.
If the laws governing matter and antimatter are the same, then why is it that the Universe is so matter-dominated? Alternately, if matter and antimatter are fundamentally different, then how does this accord with our notions of symmetry? Answering these questions is not only important as far as our predominant cosmological theories go, they are also intrinsic to understanding how the weak interactions that govern particles work.
Established in June of 2011, the international T2K collaboration is the first experiment in the world dedicated to answering this mystery by studying neutrino and anti-neutrino oscillations. The experiment begins with high-intensity beams of muon neutrinos (or muon anti-neutrinos) being generated at the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC), which are then fired towards the Super-Kamiokande detector 295 km away.
This detector is currently one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated, dedicated to the detection and study of solar and atmospheric neutrinos. As neutrinos travel between the two facilities, they change “flavor” – going from muon neutrinos or anti-neutrinos to electron neutrinos or anti-neutrinos. In monitoring these neutrino and anti-neutrino beams, the experiment watches for different rates of oscillation.
This difference in oscillation would show that there is an imbalance between particles and antiparticles, and thus provide the first definitive evidence of CP violation for the first time. It would also indicate that there are physics beyond the Standard Model that scientists have yet to probe. This past April, the first data set produced by T2K was released, which provided some telling results.
As Mark Hartz, a T2K collaborator and the Kavli IPMU Project Assistant Professor, said in a recent press release:
“While the data sets are still too small to make a conclusive statement, we have seen a weak preference for large CP violation and we are excited to continue to collect data and make a more sensitive search for CP violation.”
These results, which were recently published in the Physical Review Letters, include all data runs from between January 2010 to May 2016. In total, this data comprised 7.482 x 1020 protons (in neutrino mode), which yielded 32 electron neutrino and 135 muon neutrino events, and 7.471×1020 protons (in antineutrino mode), which yielded 4 electron anti-neutrino and 66 muon neutrino events.
In other words, the first batch of data has provided some evidence for CP violation, and with a confidence interval of 90%. But this is just the beginning, and the experiment is expected to run for another ten years before wrapping up. “If we are lucky and the CP violation effect is large, we may expect 3 sigma evidence, or about 99.7% confidence level, for CP violation by 2026,” said Hartz.
If the experiment proves successful, physicists may finally be able to answer how it is that the early Universe didn’t annihilate itself. It is also likely help to reveal aspects of the Universe that particle physicists are anxious to get into! For it here that the answers to the deepest secrets of the Universe, like how all of its fundamental forces fit together, are likely to be found.