- Associated Press - Thursday, November 18, 2010

GENEVA | Scientists claimed a breakthrough Thursday toward solving one of the biggest riddles of physics, trapping an “anti-atom” for the first time in a quest to understand what happened to all the antimatter that has vanished since the Big Bang.

An international team of physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, managed to keep atoms of anti-hydrogen from disappearing long enough to demonstrate that they can be studied in the lab.

“For us it’s a big breakthrough because it means we can take the next step, which is to try to compare matter and antimatter,” the team’s spokesman, U.S. scientist Jeffrey Hangst, told the Associated Press on Thursday.

“This field is 20 years old and has been making incremental progress toward exactly this all along the way,” he added. “We really think that this was the most difficult step.”

Researchers have puzzled for decades over why antimatter seems to have disappeared from the universe.

Theory posits that matter and its opposite, antimatter - both are defined as having mass and taking up space - were created in equal amounts at the moment of the Big Bang, which spawned the universe some 13.7 billion years ago. While matter went on to become the building block of everything that exists, antimatter has all but disappeared except in the lab.

Mr. Hangst and his colleagues, who include scientists from Britain, Brazil, Canada, Israel and the United States, trapped 38 anti-hydrogen atoms individually for more than one tenth of a second, according to a paper published online Wednesday by the journal Nature.

Since their first success, the team has managed to hold the anti-atoms even longer.

“Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how long because we haven’t published the number yet,” Mr. Hangst told the AP. “But I can tell you that it’s much, much longer than a tenth of a second. Within human comprehension on a real clock.”

Scientists have long been able to create individual particles of antimatter such as anti-protons, anti-neutrons and positrons - the opposite of electrons.

Since 2002, they also have managed to create anti-atoms in large quantities. But until recently none could be trapped for long enough to study them because atoms made of antimatter and matter annihilate each other in a burst of energy upon contact.

“It doesn’t help if they disappear immediately upon their creation,” said Mr. Hangst. “So the big goal has been to hold onto them.”

Two teams had been competing for that goal at CERN, the world’s largest physics lab best known for its $10 billion smasher, the Large Hadron Collider. The collider, built deep under the Swiss-French border, wasn’t used for this experiment.

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