Modern Alchemy

Well, now…

God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Then a trio of physicists said, “We have a simple idea for turning that light into matter” – and they may set off a race to demonstrate an idea first proposed 80 years ago.

Albert Einstein’s most famous equation, E = mc2, showed that there is a direct relationship between the mass of an object and the amount of energy it contains. Then physicists Gregory Breit and John A. Wheeler built on Einstein’s work by arguing that it ought to be possible to take two photons (pieces of light that are considered pure energy) and convert them into a pair of particles (an electron and its antimatter counterpart, a positron).

In their 1934 scientific article describing what came to be known as the Breit-Wheeler process, the pair weren’t exactly optimistic that their theoretical prediction would could ever be confirmed in practice. “It is hopeless to try to observe pair formation in laboratory experiments,” they wrote in the journal Physical Review.

Oh well, one out of two ain’t bad.

In a study published online Sunday in the journal Nature Photonics, three physicists from Imperial College London and the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany, propose a relatively straightforward method for witnessing the conversion of two photons into two particles. The trio came up with the idea and hammered out the key details in a single, coffee-fueled day, according to Imperial.

It’s easy to convert matter into energy, as anyone who’s ever lit a candle can attest. It’s a simple matter to destroy – err, no pun intended.

Turning energy into matter, however, has proved to be far more difficult. That would mean making E=mc² into M=e/c², or to put it in English, creation. Order out of relative chaos (again, no pun intended).

What these physicists have proposed to do is to shoot photons at a gold filter and into a vacuum tube. The gold excites the photons (considered energy, since at the speed of light, they do not gain mass like everything else does), the photons collide and at the other end of the tube, you should see particles like positrons and electrons emitted after an electromagnet separates them to keep them from recombining and creating energy again.

Needless to say, this will require an entirely new particle collider, one that makes CERN look like a merry-go-round.

I think we can bet on it not being built here in the States.

Do you miss science? I do.



3 Replies to “Modern Alchemy”

  1. Here’s more Science! …and also involving a John Wheeler:

    A Mathematical Proof That The Universe Could Have Formed Spontaneously From Nothing (perhaps that should be “Nothing”)…

    Cosmologists assume that natural quantum fluctuations allowed the Big Bang to happen spontaneously. Now they have a mathematical proof.

    The Physics ArXiv blog

    One of the great theories of modern cosmology is that the universe began in a Big Bang. This is not just an idea but a scientific theory backed up by numerous lines of evidence.

    For a start, there is the cosmic microwave background, which is a kind of echo of the big bang; then there is the ongoing expansion of the cosmos, which when imagined backwards, hints at a Big Bang-type origin; and the abundance of the primordial elements, such as helium-4, helium-3, deuterium and so on, can all be calculated using the theory.

    But that still leaves a huge puzzle. What caused the Big Bang itself? For many years, cosmologists have relied on the idea that the universe formed spontaneously, that the Big Bang was the result of quantum fluctuations in which the Universe came into existence from nothing.

    That’s plausible, given what we know about quantum mechanics. But physicists really need more — a mathematical proof to give the idea flesh.

    Today they get their wish thanks to the work of Dongshan He and buddies at the Wuhan Institute of Physics and Mathematics in China. These guys have come up with the first rigorous proof that the Big Bang could indeed have occurred spontaneously because of quantum fluctuations.

    1. Stephen Hawking postulated that the uncertainty principle demanded a smear of probability, however small, that the universe could have spontaneously created. The difficulty is correlating that notion with the classical physics concepts of conservation (of matter or energy or information)

      For my money, it wouldn’t surprise me if it turns out that information is another energy state, and that alone might be enough to kindle a Big Bang.

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