Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Simple Matter of Antimatter

Clear writing is important no matter where you go. It's what makes the difference between comprehension and whatever the opposite of comprehension is. We particularly expect clear writing from journalists today - it would be a far cry from the flowery style you tended to find in the broadsheets of Sherlock Holmes' day, but the problems that face us today are too numerous and too complex to be hidden behind purple prose.

Still, there's plenty of opportunity for writing to instead be translucent - particularly in the science pages, which is one place where I personally believe clarity is needed above all. The politics section too, incidentally.

Recently, the Toronto Star printed an article that came off the Canadian Press wire, "Physics breakthrough offers peek at antimatter universe" - though the original posting appended "Mirror image:" to the beginning of the headline - dealing with the recent announcement of record-breaking antimatter production at CERN, where scientists were able to trap atoms of antihydrogen for sixteen minutes - six thousand times longer than the previous record. Antimatter research is still in its infancy, and the rest of the twenty-first century will hopefully see further breakthroughs in the field. Beyond that, it's something that already has at least a vague presence in popular culture; this article is unusual in that it doesn't explain antimatter as what powers the starship Enterprise. Hell, the last time I wrote an article here about antimatter, that was my first line.

Nevertheless - I think there's a bit of unclarity in the article. Specifically, its casting of this breakthrough as opening "the door to an alternate universe." When I encountered a link to this article talking about doors to new universes, I took it at face value and went to read about how they've produced a stable wormhole at CERN or worked out all the kinks from those Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen bridges.

There's nothing to do here with alternate or parallel universes. Antimatter is a part of our own universe, though the big question is where all of it is - the thinking is that matter and antimatter were created in equal amounts by the Big Bang, yet all we see when we look around is matter. If you were writing an article about some newly discovered kind of virus, say, out "the world of the microscopic" or "the universe of the microscopic," what feels more appropriate?

There's nothing alternative about it; fundamentally, antimatter is the reflection of matter. There's nothing spooky or weird about it. It's just that it's fantastically, unbelievably dangerous in significant quantities. One kilogram of matter and antimatter reacting would produce a forty-three megaton explosion. It's just lucky for us that for the foreseeable future, anyone who wants that would find it far cheaper and easier just to build another Tsar Bomba.

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