antiparticle, elementary particle corresponding to an ordinary particle such as the proton, neutron, or electron, but having the opposite electrical charge and magnetic moment. Every elementary particle has a corresponding antiparticle; the antiparticle of an antiparticle is the original particle. In a few cases, such as the photon and the neutral pion, the particle is its own antiparticle, but most antiparticles are distinct from their ordinary counterparts.
When a particle and its antiparticle collide, both can be annihilated and other particles such as photons or pions produced. In some cases this represents the total conversion of mass into energy. For example, the collision between an electron and its antiparticle, a positron, results in the conversion of their combined masses into the energy of two photons. The reverse process, pair production, is the simultaneous creation of a particle and its antiparticle from the particles that result from their mutual annihilation.
The existence of antiparticles for electrons was predicted in 1928 by P. A. M. Dirac's relativistic quantum theory of the electron. According to the theory both positive and negative values are possible for the total relativistic energy of a free electron. In 1932, Carl D. Anderson, while studying cosmic rays, discovered the predicted positron, the first known antiparticle. About 23 years passed before the discovery of the next antiparticles—the antiproton was discovered by Owen Chamberlain and Emilio Segrè in 1955 at the Univ. of California, and the antineutron was discovered the following year—but the existence of antiparticles for all known particles was by then firmly established in theory.
The existence of antiparticles makes possible the creation of antimatter, composed of atoms made up of antiprotons and antineutrons in a nucleus surrounded by positrons. A very simple type of "atom" incorporating antiparticles is positronium, a brief pairing of a positron and an electron that may occur before their annihilation; it was first created and identified in the laboratory in 1951. Di-positronium, a molecule consisting of two positronium, was created in 2007. A few simple nuclei of antimatter have been created in the laboratory, such as the antideuteron (see deuterium). In 1995 nine atoms of antihydrogen (a single positively charged positron orbiting a single negatively charged antiproton) were created at CERN (near Geneva, Switzerland) by an Italian-German team headed by Walter Oelert.
Any antimatter in our part of the universe is necessarily very short-lived (the antihydrogen atoms, for example, survived for only 40 billionths of a second) because of the overwhelming preponderance of ordinary matter, by which the antimatter is quickly annihilated. Although scientists for a time considered the possibility that entire galaxies of antimatter could have evolved in a part of the universe far removed from our own, observations now indicate that this is not the case. The experimental work of Val L. Fitch and James W. Cronin in 1964 demonstrated an asymmetry in matter-antimatter reactions involving neutral K mesons (kaons) that may explain why the universe is composed mostly of matter. For their discovery, they shared the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physics. Later studies at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and CERN concerning the decay of other neutral mesons have found a matter-antimatter asymmetry in their decay.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.