The master of antimatter captures prestigious NSERC prize


Above: CERN, founded in 1954, is the European organization for nuclear research, the world’s largest particle physics centre. It is 10 km away from Geneva, Switzerland, at the foot of the Jura mountains.

York Professor Eric Hessels, Canada Research Chair in Atomic Physics, has captured an NSERC Steacie Fellowship, one of Canada’s top science and engineering honours, for his internationally acclaimed work on antimatter.

Right: Eric Hessels                                                                       

The award was among six announced March 11, by Lucienne Robillard, minister of industry and minister responsible for the Economic Development Agency of Canada and Tom Brzustowski, president of NSERC (Natural Science & Engineering Research Councilj of Canada).

An NSERC news release about Hessels’ award offered a recipe to describe the York researcher’s esoteric work:

First, use a particle accelerator to produce hundreds of thousands of antiprotons careening at near the speed of light. Add equal numbers of antielectrons from the radioactive decay of sodium-22. Slow all down to a relative standstill by cooling them to four degrees Kelvin (or -269 degrees C) which is just a smidgen above absolute zero. Apply electric and magnetic fields to hold these antimatter building blocks in place in a particle trap.

Note: Make sure the world’s purest vacuum environment is perfectly maintained or else the antimatter will combine with its matter counterparts, annihilating both in a burst of pure energy. If everything goes perfectly, you’re on your way to cooking up antihydrogen and helping solve one of the key questions in physics: are antimatter and matter perfectly symmetrical?

“Antihydrogen is amazingly difficult to create,” said Hessels, who is also a member of ATRAP (Antihydrogen Trap Collaboration), an international team that produced abundant antihydrogen atoms in 2002 at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics, near Geneva.

Right: The particle accelerator at CERN, in a 27-km circular tunnel near Geneva – the biggest of the “atom smashers”

Helping produce antihydrogen was just the kind of high-end particle physics challenge that Hessels loves. His York University lab is a labyrinth of sophisticated physics gadgetry designed to make exquisitely precise atomic measurements.

“NSERC Steacie Fellows are quickly rising to the top of their fields while providing role models for younger scientists and engineers,” said Robillard. “Through their creativity and excellent research, they are helping Canada build the knowledge base needed for a 21st century economy.”

“These awards are public recognition for outstanding scientific achievement,” said Brzustowski. “The researchers honoured today have already started their careers in an incredible way and I know that they will do great things for science in Canada.”

More about Eric Hessels

Along with hunting antihydrogen, Hessels’ other main project is a six-year-long epic journey to measure, to nine digits of accuracy, the energy required for an electron to jump orbits in a helium atom. He already holds the world record for this feat, equivalent to measuring the distance across Lake Ontario to less than the width of a hair. The measurement is important in that it enables physicists to more accurately calculate the fine-structure constant, a value that is a fundamental component of quantum physics calculations.

The precise measurement techniques Hessels has honed in his lab require the same patience and intense attention to details required to coax antihydrogen into existence.

“It’s a little like having a handful of planets and a handful of suns. You can’t just shuffle them together and hope that this amazingly delicate thing happens that the planets start orbiting the suns. You have to somehow get them to start orbiting,” said Hessels.

As part of his NSERC Steacie research, Hessels will be working with the ATRAP team to contain antihydrogen in mid-vacuum using a magnetic field and will thus be able to watch, and measure it, for hours.

“This is going to tell us whether antimatter is a mirror image of matter and thus how symmetric the universe is,” Hessels said. While most physicists believe that matter and antimatter are identically symmetrical, the measurements of antimatter particles to date aren’t yet accurate enough to seal the debate.

As for building other antimatter atoms, Hessels says antihydrogen is hard enough so he’s not even thinking about others. “This more aesthetic sense of trying to construct an antiworld, objects made of antimatter, is a pipe dream. It’s Star Trek stuff.”

More about NSERC and Steacie Fellowships

NSERC Steacie Fellowships are awarded to outstanding Canadian university scientists or engineers, who have earned their doctorate within the last 12 years and whose research has already earned them an international reputation. The awards include increased research funding from NSERC and payments to the universities to allow the Steacie Fellows to pursue their research full time.

Edgar William Richard Steacie, for whom the awards are named, was a physical chemist and president of the National Research Council from 1952 to 1962. He strongly believed that fundamental research is essential to the development of science; the individual is key to research, and individual ideas are ultimately responsible for important advances in science; there are no national boundaries in science; and complete freedom is required for creative work.

Steacie felt that promising young scientists are Canada’s greatest asset and should be given every opportunity to develop their own ideas.

NSERC is a key federal agency investing in people, discovery and innovation. It supports both basic university research through research grants, and project research through partnerships among postsecondary institutions, government and the private sector, as well as the advanced training of highly qualified people.