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This is a brilliant book. It discusses the difficult, but hugely exciting, notion of antimatter in a substantial and enjoyable manner. It consists of nine chapters, two appendices, an index of names and concepts and a short bibliography. The writing style is lucid, informative and at times witty. Although the reader is asked to digest an abundance of scientific and mathematical information, the narrative is interspersed with anecdotes from the history of particle physics, examples from everyday life and illuminating diagrams – this facilitates a better understanding and keeps the reader's attention from beginning to end. The tone is frequently polemical, as the author aims at dispelling the image of antimatter that popular literature and journalism have created in the public's imagination.
The discussion focuses on five, closely linked, main issues: (1) the macrocosmic nature of antimatter, (2) its microcosmic – atomic and subatomic – nature, (3) the evidence for its existence, (4) its use and (5) the problem of its production and storage.
Close's discussion of the macrocosmic nature of antimatter is driven by two claims: (a) that the explosive act of the Big Bang released energy that coagulated into matter and antimatter in perfect balance and (b) that in the universe at large matter, and not antimatter, is currently the norm. His aim is, firstly, to provide support for these two claims and, secondly, to explain what caused the development from the one phenomenon to the other. The support for the second claim is clearly and very convincingly stated (see pp. 115-118). The same holds for the explanation of the cause of the development: a long-past "Great Annihilation" between antimatter and matter, which left matter victorious over antimatter, is – given the truth of two claims – logically inferred and the case of massive "Majorana neutrinos" ("majorons") as currently the best explanation of how matter emerged victorious from the Great Annihilation is briefly but illuminatingly described (pp. 121-127).
The support for the first claim, however, albeit its exposition fills most of the pages of the book, is at best elliptically given. For this reason its understanding will require the reader's full attention and a significant amount of background knowledge (especially of Einstein's theory of relativity, of Dirac's equation and of quantum mechanics). The support consists of a description of the experiments at LEP (pp. 80-100) and of Paul Dirac's analyses (pp. 15-79).
On the one hand, the experiments at LEP, Close writes, enabled the scientists to experience how matter and antimatter had been created when the universe was but a billionth of a second old: The annihilation of matter and antimatter in the collider releases energy that is taken to be representative of the energy released by the Big Bang; or, as Close puts it, it releases energy that "reproduces" the energy released by the Big Bang (p. 14). This energy transforms itself into equal amounts of matter and antimatter. Thus, "by seeing what forms of particle and antiparticle emerged from this simulated 'mini bang' [the scientists] learned how energy was first converted into substance in the real Big Bang of the early universe" (p. 97). There are three problems here. First, the author nowhere in the book explains what this "reproduction" of the Big Bang's energy means. Second, he nowhere explains why the energy released by the "mini bang" should be understood as a "reproduction" of the energy released by the Big Bang – this is simply stated as a fact. Third, the released energy is not created ex nihilo at LEP, but rather emerges from quantities of matter and antimatter that have already been placed therein – how is Close sure that this fact does not come to differentiate the energy released by the "mini bang" from the energy released by the "Big Bang"?
On the other hand, Close discusses Dirac's analyses as an evidence of why matter and antimatter should have initially existed in perfect balance. He understands Dirac's equation as what marries Einstein's theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. The catch is that an implication of Dirac's theory is that "to every variety of subatomic particle, nature is forced also to admit a negative image, a mirror opposite" (p. 17), that "the act of creation in the Big Bang must have made two counterbalanced varieties [of matter]" (p. 21). However, despite the author's praiseworthy attempts, both the theory's "mediating" role and its implications will be hard reading for the general reader.
It would be difficult to better Close's account of the microcosmic nature of antimatter, since it is extremely detailed, crystal clear and comprehensive. Moreover, he quite often repeats the facts of this nature with the result that by the end of the book their understanding no longer presents any difficulty. Close begins by pointing out that matter and antimatter are complementary opposites and that their relation is one of mutual annihilation. Importantly, their opposition is found not on the atomic level but on the subatomic one. Inside an anti-atom the internal content and structure of an atom are back to front. Electric currents, magnetic fields, and electrical forces in anti-atoms have their polarities reversed. The atomic nucleus, from which these forces emerge, consists of protons (and neutrons) which have positive charge; this nucleus is remotely encircled by electrons, which are negatively charged. By contrast, in anti-atoms protons (and neutrons) are negatively charged (anti-protons and anti-neutrons) and remotely encircled by positively-charged electrons (positrons). Whenever an atom or particle of matter meets an atom or particle of antimatter, they are both annihilated and the outcome is electromagnetic radiation.
What is the evidence for the existence of antimatter? Close discusses extensively three pieces of evidence: (a) the 1908 Tunguska event, (b) Dirac's mathematical analyses and (c) the experiments at CERN and other laboratories. He dismisses the first evidence on two grounds (pp. 129-133). First, the phenomenal explosion, the global seismic and pressure waves, the non-existence of a crater, the total destruction of life on the scene and the absence of meteorite material or any physical trace of the invader, phenomena that characterize the Tunguska event, all can be explained as resulting from the energy released from a comet's hitting the atmosphere, far above the earth's surface. Second, as experiments have shown, annihilation between matter and antimatter produces indirectly a certain amount of carbon-14; this, however, was found not to be present in the Tunguska region after the event had occurred. So, "the Tunguska event was indeed dramatic, but there is no reason to suspect that the drama implies that a lump of antimatter hit the earth one midsummer day a century ago or, indeed, ever" (pp. 132-133).
I mentioned above the problem with Close's description of Dirac's analysis. By contrast, his account of the antimatter experiments at CERN and other laboratories (pp. 49-63) is exceptionally clear and carries the point across effortlessly and convincingly.
Annihilating antimatter has proved invaluable in medicine, technology and science. Close is particularly interested in the claims made about a possible use of antimatter by the military forces, given the fact that the release of radiation that follows the annihilation of matter and antimatter is much more explosive than anything else that we know. Annihilating a kilogram of antimatter will give out about ten billion times the amount of energy released when a kilogram of TNT explodes and 100 times more energy than nuclear fusion could generate per kilogram of fuel. Half a gram of antimatter explosively equates to 20 kilotons, the size of the bomb at Hiroshima. It is no surprise, then, that defence scientists (especially in the USA) have been trying to develop antimatter weapons for a while now.
In order for these antimatter weapons to be developed, one first needs to produce and store sufficient amounts of antimatter. This, however, in contrast to producing and storing tiny amounts of antimatter (the ways to do this are described in great detail in the book), is an impossible task, according to Close. Indeed, on the present level of efficiency, to make one gram of antimatter would take a hundred thousand centuries and cost more than 1,000 trillion US dollars! And even if this were to be done, storing that gram could not be realized. The reason is that "electrically charged particles with the same sign of charge mutually repel, so the more you have, the harder it becomes to squeeze them inside the magnetic bottle" (p. 136; see also p. 93). Having a mixture of positrons and antiprotons, as atoms of antihydrogen, so that their electric charges cancel one another, does not solve the problem, as the magnetic ropes and electric walls that would surround those atoms can confine only electrically charged elements. "Atoms of antihydrogen are neutral to the electric and magnetic fields, and soon float off freely until, uncontained, they escape, meet matter, and are prematurely destroyed" (p. 136; see also p. 93). For these reasons, Close concludes that the development of antimatter weapons – but also other projects such as "antimatter aircrafts and spacecrafts" – cannot be materialized and, therefore, the fear Dan Brown's Angels and Demons caused its readers is unfounded.
All in all, I cannot think of a better guide to the mysteries of antimatter than Frank Close's Antimatter. By the time the reader reaches the end of the book, they will have been introduced to the main protagonists of the antimatter saga – both scientists and particles and technological devices – in a lively, clear and informative fashion. The only part which, in my opinion, needs some improvement is the description of Dirac's theory and of how it counts as evidence for the existence of antimatter.
© 2010 Ioannis Trisokkas
Ioannis Trisokkas has written his PhD thesis on Hegel and Ancient Skepticism. He held a DAAD Junior Research Fellowship at the University of Tübingen and an Early Career Fellowship at the Warwick Institute of Advanced Study. His research focuses on the historical areas of German Idealism and Ancient Philosophy, and the systematic areas of epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of language and philosophy of science.