In the world of science fiction, warp drives or antigravity devices are often powered by antimatter, which in real-life physics are mysterious particles that have an opposite charge and spin compared to the regular particles you encounter in everyday life.
According to the latest results, unfortunately, the exotic material may be a lot more conventional than space opera makes it out to be.
In a recent experiment at CERN, one of the largest and most respected centers for physics research, scientists found that antiparticles are just as prone to succumbing to the effects of gravity as regular particles.
The international team of researchers called ALPHA (Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus collaboration) suspended 100 anti-atoms of hydrogen in a magnetically charged "bottle" at less than half a degree above absolute zero, as detailed in a new paper published in the journal Nature.
As they slowly turned off this magnetic field, these atoms simply drifted down at a predictable rate — roughly 32 feet per second squared, just like regular matter — which was a disappointment for anyone hoping to find evidence of exotic properties such as antigravity.
"The bottom line is that there’s no free lunch, and we’re not going to be able to levitate using antimatter," researcher Joel Fajans, of the University of California, Berkeley, told the New York Times.
The bummer news didn't exactly come as a surprise.
"If you walk down the halls of this department and ask the physicists, they would all say that this result is not the least bit surprising," said Jonathan Wurtele, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, in a statement. "But most of them will also say that the experiment had to be done because you never can be sure."
Even Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity, from over 100 years ago, posits that all types of matter respond to the same gravitational forces.
"The opposite result would have had big implications; it would be inconsistent with the weak equivalence principle of Einstein's general theory of relativity," Wurtele explained in the statement. "This experiment is the first time that a direct measurement of the force of gravity on neutral antimatter has been made."
If antimatter didn't succumb to the effects of gravity, we could theoretically create a perpetual motion machine, the researchers noted, which would violate the basic laws of thermodynamics.
At the same time, if it were to be true, we could get a small step closer to understanding why we see so little antimatter in the universe in relation to regular matter, despite current theories predicting the Big Bang created just as much antimatter as regular matter.
But given the results, we clearly still have a lot of work to do until we can get more answers.
"It has taken us 30 years to learn how to make this anti-atom, to hold on to it, and to control it well enough that we could actually drop it in a way that it would be sensitive to the force of gravity," Jeffrey Hangst, a particle physicist at Aarhus University, Denmark, and spokesperson for ALPHA, told The Guardian. "The next step is to measure the acceleration as precisely as we can."
"Until you measure it, you just don’t know," he added. "That’s science."
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