Is There a Mirror Universe?

Could there be a mirror universe, where everything is backwards – and everybody has goatees? How badly do you need to bend the laws of physics to make this happen?

One of the great mysteries in cosmology is why the Universe is mostly matter and not antimatter. If you want to learn more about that specific subject, you can click here and watch an episode all about that.

During the Big Bang, nearly equal amounts of matter and antimatter were created, and subsequently annihilated. Nearly equal. And so we’re left with a Universe made of matter.

But could there be antimatter stars out there? With antimatter planets in orbit. Could there be a backwards Universe that operates just like our regular Universe, but everything’s made of antimatter? And if it’s out there, does it have to be evil? Do they only know how to conquer? Does everyone, even the antimatter babies and ladies, have handsome goatees? How about sashes? I hear they’re big on sashes. OOH and daggers. Gold daggers with little teensy antimatter emeralds and rubies.

Antimatter, without the goatee, was theorized in 1928 by Paul Dirac, who realized that one implication of quantum physics was that you could get electrons that had a positive charge instead of a negative charge. They were discovered by Carl D. Anderson just 4 years later, which he named “positron” for positive electron.

We believe he was clearly snubbing Dirac, by not naming them the “Diracitron”, alternately they were saving that name for a giant Japanese robot.

These antiparticles are created through high energy particle collisions happening naturally in the Universe, or unnaturally inside our “laugh in the face of God and nature” particle accelerators. We can even detect the annihilation out there in the Universe where matter and antimatter crash into each other.

Physicists have discovered a range of anti-particles. Anti-protons, anti-neutrons, anti-hydrogen, anti-helium. To date, there’s been no evidence of any goatees or sashes. Naturally, they wondered what might happen if the balance of the Universe was flipped. What if we had a Universe made out of mostly antimatter? Would it still… you know, work? Could you have antimatter stars, antimatter planets, and even those antimatter people we mentioned?

The Large Hadron Collider (CERN/LHC)
The Large Hadron Collider (CERN/LHC)

When physics swap out matter for anti-matter in their equations, they call it charge conjugation. It turns out, no. If you reversed the charge of all the particles in the Universe, it wouldn’t evolve in the same way as our “plain old non-sashed” Universe.

To fix this problem, physicists considered the implications if you had an actual mirror Universe, where all the particles behaved as if they were mirror images of themselves. This sounds a little more in line with our “Through a mirror, darkly” goatee and sash every day festival universe. This is all the bits backwards. Spin, charge, velocity, the works. They called this parity inversion. So, would this work?

Again, it turns out that the answer is no. It would almost work out, but there’s a tendency for the weak nuclear force, the one the governs nuclear decay to violate this idea of parity inversion. Even in a mirror Universe, the weak nuclear force is left-handed. Dammit, weak nuclear force, get your act together, if not just for the sake of the costumes and cooler bridge lighting.

What matter and antimatter might look like annihilating one another. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss
What matter and antimatter might look like annihilating one another. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

What if you reversed both the charge and the parity at the same time? What if you had antimatter in a mirror Universe? Physicists called this charge-parity symmetry, or CP symmetry.

In a dazzling experiment and absolute “what if” one-upmanship exercise by James Cronin and Val Fitch in 1964. They demonstrated that no, you can’t have a mirror-antimatter Universe evolve with our physical laws. This experiment won the Nobel Prize in 1980.

Physicists had one last trick up their sleeves. It turns out that if you reverse time itself as well as making everything out of antimatter and holding it up to a mirror, you get true symmetry. All the physical lays are preserved, and you’d get a Universe that would look exactly like our own.

It turns out we could live in a mirror Universe, as long as you were willing to reverse the charge of every particle and run time backwards. And if you did, it would be indistinguishable from the Universe we actually live in. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to call my tailor, I hear sashes are going to be huge this year.

So what do you think, do we live in the real Universe or the mirror Universe? Tell us in the comments below.

Possibility for White Dwarf Pulsars?

AE Aquarii - A possible White Dwarf Pulsar

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Some satellites get all the glory. While Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer frequently make headlines with their stunning images, many other space based observatories silently toil away. One of them, known as the Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics (PAMELA) has been in orbit since 2006, but rarely receives media attention although a stunning discovery has led to the publication of over 300 papers within a single year. A new paper in that onslaught has proposed an interesting new object: pulsars powered by white dwarfs.
PAMELA isn’t a satellite in its own right. It piggybacks on another satellite. Its mission is to observe high energy cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are particles, whether they be protons, electrons, nuclei of entire atoms, or other pieces, that are accelerated to high velocities, often from exotic sources and cosmological distances.

Among the types of particles PAMELA detects is the elusive positron. This anti-particle of the electron is quite rare due to the scarcity of anti-matter in general in our universe. However, much to the surprise of astronomers, in the range of 10 – 100 GeV, PAMELA has reported an abundance of positrons. In even higher ranges (100 GeV – 1 TeV) astronomers have found that there is a rise in both electrons and positrons. The conclusion from this is that something is able to actually create these particles in these energy ranges.

A flurry of papers went to publication to explain this unexpected finding. Explanations ranged from showers of particles created by even higher energy cosmic rays striking the interstellar medium, to the decay of dark matter, to neutron stars, pulsars, supernovae, and gamma ray bursts. Indeed, many events that produce high energies are sufficient to spontaneously produce matter from energy through the process of pair production. However, the range of these ejected particles would be limited. Effects, such as synchrotron and inverse Compton emission would drain their energy over large distances and as such, by the time they reached PAMELA’s detectors would be too low energy to account for the excesses in the observed energy ranges. From this, astronomers are presuming the culprits are in the local universe.

Joining the long list of candidates, a new paper has proposed a mundane object could be responsible for the high energy necessary to create these energetic particles, albeit with an unusual twist. Neutron stars, one of the potential objects formed in a supernova, are known to release large amounts of energies when spinning quickly while creating a strong magnetic field in the form of pulsars, but the authors propose that white dwarfs, the products of the slow death from stars not massive enough to result in a supernova, may be able to do the same thing. The difficulty in creating such a white dwarf pulsar is that, since white dwarfs don’t collapse to such a small size, they don’t “spin up” as much as they conserve angular momentum and shouldn’t have the sufficient angular velocity necessary.

The authors, led by Kazumi Kashiyama at Kyoto University propose that a white dwarf may reach the necessary rotational speed if they undergo a merger or accrete a sufficient amount of mass. This idea is not unheard of since white dwarf mergers and accretion are already implicated in Type Ia Supernovae. The combination of this with the expectation that around 10% of white dwarfs are expected to have magnetic fields of 106 Gauss, the steps necessary to produce a pulsar from a white dwarf seem to be in place. They note that since white dwarfs tend to have weaker magnetic fields, they shed their angular momentum more slowly and would last longer. Although this duration is still far longer than humans can possibly watch, this may indicate that many of the pulsars observed in our own galaxy are white dwarfs.

Next, the authors hope to conclusively identify such a star. The creation of each of these types of pulsars may provide a clue: Since neutron stars form from supernovae, they are surrounded by a shell of gas that contains a shock front from the supernova itself, which is more dense than the interstellar medium in general. As particles pass through this shock front, some of them would be lost. The same would not be said for white dwarfs which formed from a more gentle release and aren’t impeded by the relatively high density area. This shift in energy distributions may be one distinguishing characteristic.

Some stars have even been tentatively proposed as candidates for white dwarf pulsars. AE Aquarii was seen to give off some pulsar-like signals. EUVE J0317-855 is another white dwarf that appears to meet the qualifications, although no signals have been detected from this star. This new class of stars would be able to explain the excess signal in the higher energy range detected by PAMELA and will likely be the target of further observational searches in the future.