What matters most to TRIUMF research scientist and UBC’s Green College faculty member Makoto Fujiwara is not matter at all but its opposite, anti-matter. Since his childhood days reading science fiction, Fujiwara has been fascinated by the stuff and has spent the last 12 years studying one of the great mysteries of the universe: why anti-matter, which existed in equal amounts to matter at the time of the Big Bang, has all but disappeared.
After completing his PhD at UBC, Fujiwara took a post-doctoral position at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and helped launch the ALPHA Collaboration, an international group of 40 scientists, including a dozen from BC, experimenting with anti-matter. “Our approach is to create artificial anti-matter and study its properties,” Fujiwara says. “To do these kinds of studies we need to contain anti-matter in a trap.”
That’s easier said than done, considering anti-matter is annihilated on impact with matter. But the team had a major breakthrough last November when it succeeded in confining anti-matter atoms using magnets. “By June we were able to confine anti-matter for 1,000 seconds,” Fujiwara says. “Our ultimate goal is to see whether or not there is any difference between matter and anti-matter.”
It’s a goal that is being pursued in small steps, each the result of accumulation of evidence through trial and error. “Most often, scientific discovery is a painstaking process done gradually, but there are a lot of a-ha moments,” Fujiwara says, adding that he gets a lot of his inspiration from activities at Green College. “You get asked questions in totally different ways.”
Fujiwara’s next step with anti-matter involves experiments with colour. “We’re trying to do a spectroscopy experiment by shooting a beam of microwaves onto the anti-matter to see what colour it emits. Nobody has ever seen the colour of anti-matter. We don’t know if this will solve the mystery of anti-matter, but it’s something that, as a scientist, I feel we must do.”