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University of Calgary physicist joins other scientists in quest for anti-matter

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It sounds like it should be a villain in a super-hero movie, but in reality, "anti-matter" remains one of the world's greatest mysteries.

Physicists from the University of Calgary were involved in a recent experiment that answered a long-standing question about the substance.

"One of the biggest mysteries we have in physics right now," said University of Calgary assistant professor of physics and astronomy Timothy Friesen, "is where the anti-matter is and what happened to it?"

Research on this began in the 1920s, with the theory being that there were equal amounts of matter and anti-matter when the big bang happened.

"But as we know," Friesen said, "from science fiction, when matter and anti-matter meet, they annihilate each other and they turn into energy."

But since matter makes up the world around us, the question remains: what happened to the anti-matter?

A group of scientists from around the world, including the University of Calgary, made a significant step in answering that question, at the leading nuclear research facility European Concil for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Europe.

"Newton told us what happens when we drop this," said CERN Alpha-G experiment spokesperson Jeffery Hangst. "What happens if we drop this one?"

Using CERN's antihydrogen laser physics apparatus or "alpha" – an anti-hydrogen atom is created – it's neutral charge allowing it to be sensitive to gravity.

"So we hold it in a magnetic bottle trap," said Friesen, "so it behaves like a little magnet, they put it in a magnetic bottle and we see which way it goes. Does it fall down or does it fall up?"

And the answer is?

"We found out a little disappointingly that it does what you expect," Friesen said. "Everything we drop falls to earth in the same way."

So what's next?

"Now the question will become, does it fall down in exactly the same way?"

Considering it took nearly 20 years to find out the direction in which anti-matter falls, unravelling the entire mystery could take quite some time.

But playing a part in this scientific quest was a dream come true for Friesen.

"I grew up watching Star Trek," he said, "and anti-matter was just this science fiction thing and now here I have a chance to control it, manipulate it.

"It's really fun to be a part of that process."

This milestone first step could help physicists understand the lack of anti-matter observed in the universe.

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