Antimatter

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The concept in Physics that forms of matter may exist composed of antiparticles, opposite in all quantum properties to the particles which compose ordinary matter, has a special appeal to sf writers. The idea itself was first formulated by the physicist Paul Dirac (1902-1984) in 1930; the confirmation of the existence of such particles soon followed, with the discovery of the positron (antielectron) in 1932. However, although antiparticles have for many years been routinely created in the laboratory, this has never been done in sufficient quantity to form what we would think of as antimatter. The Tevatron at Fermilab, generating some 70,000,000,000 antiprotons every hour, would require a billion or so years to accumulate a single gram of anti-hydrogen. Aside from isolated particles (low-energy antiprotons have been detected in high-altitude balloon experiments), there may be little or no natural antimatter anywhere in the universe. Antimatter cannot easily exist in our world, since it would combine explosively with conventional matter, mutually annihilating 100% of both forms of matter to create energy – a point basic to the plot of Paul Davies's Fireball (1987).

Antimatter would make a fine power source if only we knew how to manufacture and store it in quantity: no problem it seems for Scotty, the engineer in Star Trek (1966-1969), since the starship Enterprise is fuelled by it. Star Trek's handwaving explanation is that the imaginary Element or mineral dilithium (see Unobtainium) can safely contain antimatter and matter/antimatter reactions. Although various real-world engineering solutions have been proposed for antimatter storage, usually involving magnetic traps or bottles, its manufacture by creating and assembling antiparticles would be unbelievably laborious and energy-intensive. The traditional sf approach is to assume that natural antimatter can be found and exploited somewhere out in space.

A pioneering view of antimatter's potential usefulness as a Power Source – the most efficient possible form of Nuclear Energy – appears in Jack Williamson's Seetee stories, opening with "Collision Orbit" (July 1942 Astounding) as by Will Stewart. This and its follow-ups became Seetee Ship (July and November 1942, January-February 1943 Astounding as by Will Stewart; 1951) and the sequel Seetee Shock (February-April 1949 Astounding as by Will Stewart; 1950). "Seetee" is a phonetic rendering of "CT", short for ContraTerrene matter, a term for antimatter proposed by US physicist Vladimir Rojansky (1900-1981) in 1935 and broadcast to sf readers in the essay "Inside Out Matter" (December 1941 Astounding) by Robert S Richardson (see Philip Latham). In the Seetee books, antimatter fragments abound in the Asteroid belt – a possibility suggested by Rojansky in 1940 and passed to Williamson by John W Campbell Jr – and the ultimate solution to storage and manipulation problems is to posit Antigravity fields.

Antimatter Aliens from an antimatter world also feature in the back-story of Williamson's Seetee Ship, as constructors of the title's ancient Spaceship; further "natural" antimatter creatures are found in Colin Kapp's "The Pen and the Dark" (in New Writings in SF 8, anth 1966, ed John Carnell).

Larry Niven's sf puzzle story "Flatlander" (March 1967 If) centres on an intruding antimatter planet from outside our galaxy, scoured to billiard-ball smoothness by destructive interaction with normal-matter interstellar dust: Niven subsequently noted that a Stasis Field – already a given of his Known Space sequence – would permit a landing on this inimical world. In Firstborn (2007), Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter posit the "mining" of naturally created antiparticles from the high-energy magnetic flux tube which is known to exist between Jupiter to its moon Io, carrying an electric current of some five million amperes.

The vast expense and timescale of manufacturing antimatter by known means is quietly glossed over in Donald Kingsbury's The Moon Goddess and the Son (December 1979 Analog; exp 1986), in which a deus ex machina ABM system fuelled by anti-hydrogen is deployed from low Earth orbit to avert World War Three; but is accepted as necessary for the ultra-lightweight interstellar probe in Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (1990). In the Culture sequence by Iain M Banks, energy is effectively free and it is thus plausible that antimatter should be created for the Weapons of large-scale destruction used in Consider Phlebas (1987). One military or terrorist attraction of antimatter is that the enormous energy release upon annihilation allows extremely compact armaments – as highlighted in Alastair Reynolds's Revelation Space (2000), where a suicide bomb of two-kiloton explosive yield is concealed within a prosthetic eyeball. Both uses of antimatter are combined in the space-to-space missiles of The Praxis (2002) by Walter Jon Williams, whose payload of anti-hydrogen doubles as propellant and warhead.

The Physics analogy that antimatter is (in certain senses) a mirror image of normal matter suggests that it could be created by crafty rotation of objects through higher Dimensions, as discussed by Martin Gardner in his nonfiction The Ambidextrous Universe (1964; exp 1979; rev 1982). A lively novel making good use of this idea is The Ring of Ritornel (1968) by Charles L Harness, in which sending normal matter around a "Mobius-Klein circuit" inverts it into antimatter. It is noted in Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand (1976) that the book's topological inverter ("Rhennius machine") would be dangerously capable of generating antimatter if not prevented by safety features from functioning at the subatomic-particle level. Such inversion of matter is the mainspring of an Alien booby-trap in Greg Bear's Anvil of Stars (1992): manned probes are converted to antimatter and will detonate disastrously should they dock again with their mother ship. This suggests a source for the matched matter and antimatter projectiles used to destroy Earth in Bear's related novel The Forge of God (1987). Antimatter spaceship-fuel is created by a form of Matter Transmission in Blindsight (2006) by Peter Watts, the premise being that only information is actually transmitted for reconstruction by the receiver: send the physical specifications of antimatter, and antimatter is received.

Some authors have deployed Imaginary Science versions of antimatter. E E Smith's "negasphere" weapon in Gray Lensman (October 1939-January 1940 Astounding; 1951) supposedly has negative mass, and its annihilation with normal matter generates only invisible (though lethal) radiation without the expected cataclysmic release of heat and light. A realistically violent "contraterrene" bomb in Colin Kapp's Transfinite Man (November 1963-January 1964 New Worlds as "The Dark Mind"; 1964; vt The Dark Mind 1965) arrives deep-frozen and is unrealistically inert until it defrosts. Likewise, in the Alternate Cosmos of Stephen Baxter's Anti-Ice (1993), the eponymous antimatter-like substance remains inactive while sufficiently chilled. Perhaps the oddest sf (mis)use of antimatter appears in Cordwainer Smith's "Under Old Earth" (February 1966 Galaxy), where "congohelium" – supposedly a magnetically stabilized matter/antimatter grid – is employed to make Music.

Antimatter galaxies, or even an entire antimatter universe created in the Big Bang at the same time as our matter universe, have been postulated by physicists, with the enthusiastic support of the sf community. A E van Vogt was one of the first to use this idea, which has since become a Cliché of pulp sf. James Blish's A Clash of Cymbals (1959) climaxes with ultimate Holocaust as an anti-universe impinges upon our own. The concept is dealt with more sophisticatedly in Ian Watson's The Jonah Kit (1975). [DRL/PN]

see also: Positronic Robots; Scientific Errors; Space Warp; Tachyons.

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