GENEVA (AP - Jan 8, 1996) -- In a breakthrough that offers physicists a chance to test their understanding of the universe, researchers for the first time have created atoms of antimatter.
The achievement was announced recnetly after months of careful checking of data. Physicists say it is possible that the universe could contain stars and planets made entirely of antimatter -- objects that up to now scientists could only imagine.
The antimatter atoms were produced last September at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Switzerland by Professor Walter Oelert and his team from Erlangen-Nuremberg University in Germany.
The results of the tests were a triumph for CERN. Scientists at five other research centers -- including Harvard and Chicago -- were also working to produce antimatter atoms.
Antimatter atoms have the same structure as conventional atoms -- electrons in orbit around a nucleus -- but are made up of anti-particles. Every sub-atomic particle is known to have a corresponding anti-particle.
Scientists say the fascinating quality of antimatter is that when it meets matter -- the substance that all things on earth are made of -- the two substances instantly annihilate each other, releasing a burst of energy.
In the experiments, the antimatter atoms remained in existence for just 40 billionths of a second before annihilation.
The next step for Oelert and his team is to compare the atoms of antimatter with ordinary atoms.
According to current scientific theories, they should be exactly the same. If not, then scientists' understanding of the universe will be turned on its head.
"This discovery opens the door into a completely new anti-world," said Neil Calder, a CERN spokesman. "This may be a tiny Alice in Wonderland door ... through which we can get to a completely new understanding of the reality of the universe."
Scientists outside CERN also hailed the discovery but said it was the first step in a long process.
Gerald Gabrielse, a professor of physics at Harvard, described the results as a "very interesting demonstration." But he said further research was needed to observe the antimatter atoms at slower speed and compare them with ordinary atoms.
"We will have to wait and see if we can compare the atoms with high accuracy to see if they are the same or not. That is where the real punch line is," Gabrielse said.
Despite his team's achievement, Oelert was "extremely pessimistic" that his discovery would ever lead to a new type of energy.
"Even if it were possible to produce a lot of antimatter, the technological problems of keeping it are enormous," he said in a telephone interview.
Original file name: CNI - Antimatter 1.8
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