MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING?
ANTIMATTER might sound like the stuff of ‘Star Trek’, ‘ray guns’ and pulp 20th C science fiction but it might hold the key to the origins of the universe according to one of Britain’s leading scientists.
It’s rare that members of the public get the chance to pose questions to one of the great minds of science, but an enthralled audience in Yorkshire was able to do just that this week/last week (ed. [March 18]).
Oxford University’s eminent Professor of Physics Frank Close OBE, one of the greatest thinkers on ‘life, the universe and everything’, held spectacular scientific court at a special Café Scientifique lecture evening at Seven Arts, Chapel Allerton, Leeds – and had his audience hanging on his every word.
Prof Close, one of the world’s leading authorities on theoretical and particle physics, is renowned for specialising in what happened as little as a trillionth of a second after the so-called Big Bang.
Talking and taking questions for over an hour from a 100-strong audience, the author of the new bestseller ‘Antimatter’ predicted science’s strangest anomaly would become a hot topic this Spring, thanks to Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown’s forthcoming film ‘Angels and Demons’, which has antimatter at its heart.
But Prof Close, a former Royal Institution Christmas lecturer, while praising Dan Brown’s original novel as a work of fiction, said it was just that.
“Antimatter might sound the stuff of science fiction but it DOES exist.
“In 30 years of lecturing and broadcasting about science, I have been asked about antimatter more than any other topic.
“I appeared on Radio Four two years ago to discuss the subject, and it prompted a flurry of emails requesting news.
“Among these was the belief that antimatter could and would make weapons, create awful destruction, and that the work of the US military had inspired Dan Brown’s ‘Angels and Demons’, which features an anti-matter bomb, allegedly made at CERN, the home of the much publicised Large Hadron Collider.
“In truth, there are TWO correct statement’s in Dan Brown’s book – one, there IS a laboratory called CERN, and secondly it HAS made antimatter. The rest of it is fiction. It’s certainly interesting fiction, but it is just that.
“If you have just a gramme of antimatter, when it touches ordinary matter, the amount of energy produced would be the equivalent to that of the atom bomb at Hiroshima.
“Dan Brown poses the question could it be the solution to the world’s energy problems or maybe even the ultimate weapon of mass destruction?
“The answer to both those questions is no – the reason is, there’s simply no antimatter around in bulk. So we have to make it, which uses more energy than we can ever get back.
“If I was a lump of anti-matter, you couldn’t tell by looking at me – and I would be absolutely identical to what I look like now. Even if you looked at the atoms inside me, they would still look identical from the outside.
“It’s only when you get INSIDE the atoms that everything looks back to front. Antimatter is a weird topsy-turvy shadow of matter like tweedledum to our tweedledee, where left becomes right and positive becomes negative.
“Like the mould that remains when a cast is removed, matter and antimatter are the yin and the yang of reality.
“And it’s antimatter’s ability to destroy matter in a flash which has become the source of its fascination from everyone from school children to theoretical physicists like me – and people here this evening in Leeds.
“Our theories and experiments when we create the first moments after the Big Bang at CERN show that out of the energy in the Big Bang, matter and antimatter emerged in perfect balance.
“The key question is, why isn’t it, that a trillionth of a second later, they didn’t annihilate each other as we might have thought should have been the case. Fourteen billion years later, we as matter, are still around to be able to ask that question.
“SOMETHING tipped the balance, and we still don’t know exactly what it was. So THE ‘Creation’ was something even ‘grander’ than what you see left over today. A ‘Great Annihilation’ took place, and we – i.e. matter – are what is left of it.
“What always fascinates me is how that jumble of positive matter atoms which coagulated into ourselves can now ponder the wonder of the universe – and indeed antimatter – the very opposite of ourselves.”
Prof Close predicts when the controversial LHC at CERN is reactivated, scientists will be able to recreate antimatter and the conditions at the start of the Universe just a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. What happened before then, he says is still open to speculation.
“In the introduction to my new book, I deliberately make a Biblical parallel.
“ ‘In the beginning there was nothing – ‘there was darkness on the face of the void’. Then came a burst of energy: ‘let there be light, and there was light’, and then, in my words, ‘though from where it came I don’t know.’”
“That to me is the critical divide, if you ask me where is science, and where is religion, we still don’t know ‘where’ it [the Big Bang] came from – but what we do know as scientists is ‘what happened next.’
“Energy coagulated into matter AND this mysterious opposite in initial perfect counter balance.
“The Big Bang CREATED space and time – so what it means to say ‘what was there before the Big Bang’ is a bit like saying ‘what is there at 91 degrees to the north of the equator?’
“It’s very hard for us ALL to conceptualise these things. But antimatter played – and will continue to play a tremendous part in the conceptualisation – and in the reality of here and now.”
“The Big Bang DID happen. In the 15 years since I made my Royal Institution Christmas Lecture called the Cosmic Onion, we’ve moved a lot closer to approaching the start of ‘Creation’.
“When I wrote the ‘Cosmic Onion’ all those years ago, we were able to get back to about a millionth of a second after the Big Bang – in the next year or two, we will be able to get to a trillionth of second.
“We can get nearer and nearer to it, but we’ll never be able to pinpoint the point of Creation – it’s a bit like trying reach the point where parallel lines meet or the end of the rainbow
“’Science’ can ask WHAT happened after the Big Bang and we now know a great deal – WHY it happened; well, there are many ideas, but no definitive answers.
“I’m often asked the question, ‘Do you believe in God?’ Well, first of all I ask people what they mean by the question – I’m not trying to side step it, but there ARE things I am convinced of.
“I have no belief when I die I will have any conscious awareness of an afterlife or suchlike. My previous book ‘The Void’ was about that
“If you want to define God as the ‘nature of Nature’ then ‘yes’ I can appreciate that, though I’m not sure what that would actually mean.
“ I am a scientist because I want to understand this Universe I find myself in. In a sense, I deal with ‘How’ questions – ‘WHY’ questions are nearer to the realms of faith and belief.
“BUT ‘why it is that there is something rather than nothing’ IS the ‘Big Question’. And that is still a big question for science because matter and antimatter lie at its heart.
“In my book Lucifer’s Legacy, I speculate that in a ‘perfect creation’ matter and antimatter would have been exactly balanced and the universe would have self destructed.
“But, then something ‘turned’ the dial slightly to make it ‘imperfect’, with something left over…what that was, or whether the universe is a ‘quantum blip’, we don’t know.
“We know it is effectively possible for the universe to’ pop out of nothing’ in a ‘quantum’ fashion. And that could be what happened.
“But, to me, that still begs a more profound question – who or what ‘knew’ that there was a ‘quantum’ to ‘allow’ a universe to ‘pop-out’. If that is what you wish to call ‘God’, there is nothing in science that says one way or another.
“Simply science does not DISprove God – but equally science does not NEED God. Science makes no statement about it.
“Is the nature of the Universe ultimately unknowable? – I afraid I just don’t know. We certainly know more about it now that than the ancient Greeks did. But it’s a bit like trying to get to the end of the rainbow.
“But that’s not to say we mustn’t keep on trying. We might never quite get there, but my goodness, science has discovered a lot of interesting things along the way.”
Prof Close’s book ‘Antimatter’ – the follow-up to his equally successful ‘The Void’ is available now from Oxford University Press and good bookshops. (£9.99). He was awarded an OBE recently for his work in popularising science.
Café Scientifique in Leeds has been playing host to eminent lecturers for over ten years in a convivial atmosphere; more details available from Duncan Dallas at caféfirstname.lastname@example.org.