Particle Man

Sam Ting is on a mission: find the other half of the universe.

Air & Space Magazine

High above the Florida dunes, a group of excited visitors clambers over the metal grates at the top of the space shuttle launch pad. As a cool winter wind blows and a pale, nearly full moon rises over the Atlantic, they chatter in French, German, Chinese, Italian, and Korean, snapping pictures with disposable cameras. No ordinary tourists, this group of VIP physicists is here on a working trip. Their usual haunts are vast underground tunnels near Geneva, Switzerland, that house gigantic particle-smashing accelerators central to their research. But an unusual experiment slated to be launched in two years from this spot at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center has brought the scientists out of their holes for a look at the stars.

The Pied Piper luring them to this upper world is Sam Ting of the Mass-achusetts Institute of Technology, a Nobel prize winner famous for thumbing his nose at scientific orthodoxy. The trim and dapper 65-year-old physicist has set his sights on finding evidence of a long-theorized anti-matter universe—a chase that many scientists, including some on his own research team, say is extremely long on odds. Undaunted, Ting has deftly used a combination of political savvy, his own reputation, and managerial muscle to persuade 16 governments and hundreds of physicists and engineers around the world to join him in a multimillion dollar quest to find exotic particles that may not even exist.

Ting’s plan is to attach a massive magnet called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the outside of the International Space Station, where he hopes it will attract passing bits of anti-matter—particles with an electrical charge opposite that of ordinary matter. If such anti-atoms exist and can be captured, the finding would solve one of the great mysteries of modern cosmology—namely, what happened to all the anti-matter that should have been created in equal parts with matter at the time of the Big Bang.

Never mind that in the past decade, dozens of balloon flights have tried to find primordial anti-atoms and failed. “No risk, no reward” is the unofficial rationale behind the AMS. “This program clearly has a very low probability of finding primordial anti-matter,” says Hans Hofer, a longtime colleague of Ting’s at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. “But if you find it, you’ll be famous.”

And fame is as coveted in the research world as it is in Hollywood. Ting is certainly a research superstar, but he has also earned a reputation for abrasive toughness that rubs many the wrong way. No surprise, then, that astrophysicists resent his sudden appearance on their turf—the heavens—and the way he used his connections to win the support of NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. Many high-energy physicists see the space station experiment as being on the fringe of legitimate research, while to others, the AMS is nothing more than a big gamble by a big ego to grab headlines. Even his own colleagues joke that the program’s acronym is a deliberate scramble of Ting’s first name.

But Ting says his venture ultimately is not about turf or headlines but about the excitement of exploration. The challenge of being the first to discover primordial anti-matter forged in distant anti-galaxies is simply too tempting to pass up. “And if you don’t do it,” he says, “someone will do it better.”

As early as 1898, British physicist Arthur Schuster suggested the existence of “anti-atoms” that mirror the building blocks of ordinary matter. In the early 1930s, his countryman Paul Dirac described the behavior of electrons in equations that for the first time married Einstein’s relativity theory with the new Alice in Wonderland concepts of quantum mechanics. One curious byproduct of Dirac’s equations: They required, along with ordinary, negatively charged electrons, the existence of anti-electrons with a positive charge—anti-matter.

Proof came almost immediately. In 1932, physicist Carl Anderson of the California Institute of Technology discovered one of these “positrons” in a laboratory cloud chamber while studying the tracks of cosmic rays—very-high-energy particles streaming in from space. Half a century later, German physicist Werner Heisenberg would call Anderson’s discovery, which had won him a Nobel prize, “perhaps the biggest jump of all the big jumps in physics in our century.”

By the mid-1950s, physicists using large particle colliders had succeeded in manufacturing an anti-

proton by smashing together two ordinary protons at fantastic speeds. Since then, giant accelerators have sprung up—or, more accurately, sprung down—in Europe, the United States, Russia, and China. In 1995, researchers at a vast underground complex called CERN (Centre Européen de Recherche Nucléaire), located on the border of Switzerland and France, opened a new door into the anti-world. By colliding anti-protons and xenon atoms, they produced anti-atoms of the most basic element, hydrogen—one anti-proton and one positron. The anti-atoms lasted only          0.00000004 second before being annihilated by ordinary matter, but they left signals that confirmed their existence.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus