But the 38 atoms of anti-hydrogen trapped by scientists for one sixth of a second would hardly pose a threat to the Vatican. Nor could they drive a starship, as depicted in Star Trek. However, the particles might help physicists further understand the nature and origins of the universe.
Antimatter is ordinary matter in reverse. Atoms normally consist of positively charged nuclei and negatively charged orbiting electrons. Their antimatter counterparts have negatively charged nuclei and positively charged electrons.
When matching matter and antimatter particles meet, they instantly annihilate each other in a tremendous outburst of energy.
For this reason, antimatter has long been the stuff of science fiction. An antimatter reactor powers the starship Enterprise in the TV series, Star Trek, and in Angels & Demons a secret society hides an antimatter bomb beneath St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Theoretically, a single pound of antimatter would contain more destructive power than the largest H-bomb. But creating and holding onto even tiny amounts of antimatter is so costly and difficult that the chances of it being used to create the ultimate weapon are remote.
The new research, published yesterday in the journal, Nature, involves scientists working at the European nuclear research facility at CERN, Geneva, which plays a pivotal role in Angels & Demons.
In the world of fiction, it is from here that terrorists steal the antimatter used to make their bomb. In reality, an international CERN team has succeeded in producing atoms of anti-hydrogen and – more importantly – keeping it long enough to be studied.
Prof Rob Thompson, head of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary, one of the 42 Alpha investigators, said: “This is a major discovery. It could enable experiments that result in dramatic changes to the current view of fundamental physics or in confirmation of what we already know now.
“We’ve been able to trap about 38 atoms, which is an incredibly small amount, nothing like what we would need to power Star Trek’s starship Enterprise, or even to heat a cup of coffee.
“Now we can start working on the next step which is to use tools to study it.”
The experiments could help scientists unravel one of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe. When the Big Bang gave birth to the universe almost 14 billion years ago, equal amounts of matter and antimatter were created, scientists believe. But the cosmos today is completely dominated by ordinary matter. It is just as well, because otherwise the universe would be a very dangerous place in which to live. However, scientists have long wondered where all the missing antimatter has gone.