What’s the Deal with Antimatter?
Antimatter is one of the weirdest aspects of the universe. It’s right up there with black holes, the big bang and wormholes. In fact, some might say it’s even weirder, since all of those things generally interact within our universe. Antimatter, on the other hand, is a whole other story.
As a general rule, everything in our universe is made up of matter. Even the vacuum of space is still mostly made of matter, though it comes in the form of dark matter. Antimatter is very similar to matter, and at the same time, it is the exact opposite. Sound confusing? That’s because it is. Let’s see if we can break it down a bit.
Positive vs. Negative
All matter has a charge. You might remember electrons from your high school or college courses. Those electrons all have a positive or negative charge.
Antimatter also has a positive or negative charge, but the difference lies in within. If an object of matter has, say 3 positive and 1 negative charge, then the antimatter of that object would have 3 negative and 1 positive charge. They are exactly opposite.
Does it still seem confusing? That’s understandable. Let’s say you’ve got a scissor lift that you’re working on. You’re familiar with a regular lift, made of matter. However, if that same lift is made of antimatter, then all of the charges are reversed, which makes it very dangerous for you to be around.
There are a few other differences between regular matter and our matter, but the key thing is the opposition of charges.
This is why I always keep the advice of Neil deGrasse Tyson in mind: “If you ever happen upon an alien, don’t touch it! Toss something to it first. If it explodes, it was made of antimatter and would have killed you.” Pretty neat, right? Hold on, it gets cooler.
So, What’s the Point?
That’s the big question right? Why does antimatter, well, matter? We have this insatiable need for energy. We need it for everything. Our homes, our cars and, most dramatically, space travel!
Right now, we can do a little bit of space travel, but it’s not really feasible for us to even try hopping over to the next planet, let alone outside of our solar system. That is where antimatter comes in.
Take Us to the Stars
Antimatter has one unique property. When it comes into contact with any kind of matter, it explodes. However, it does so in the most perfect way possible. The combination of antimatter and matter, due to the reversal of the positive and negative charges, produces a nearly perfect exchange of energy. A human being that pokes a single atom of antimatter would not just instantly blow themselves up, but would destroy an area that seems excessive in comparison.
Basically, this is where Einstein’s famous energy equation: E=mc2 comes into play. This is an example of the perfect conversion of energy. The ability to harness this kind of power is what would make us able to travel to the stars. Isn’t it strange how Futurama had that guess right?!
Essentially, antimatter is important because it represents the next phase of human development. It shows us that we can make science fiction possible, but getting there isn’t easy. Right now, we can manufacture antimatter. What we can’t do is afford it. The process is so delicate and expensive, that even trying to make a small amount would bankrupt the United States.
We know it’s out there. We know that there are many other plants that could, potentially, support life. As much as we want to try, we are still limited by our flaws.
Even if we could produce antimatter, we would still have to deal with the issues of something going wrong with a spacecraft, and the impacts of what we might find. As exciting as it may be, traveling within our solar system, let alone without, is fraught with peril. Perhaps we’ll get there one day. One thing is for sure, we don’t plan to stop trying.