The Being of Being
Published: May 20, 2010
Why is there something instead of nothing? That is a child’s question, but it also haunts the imaginations of physicists and mathematicians. What they know is that the matter and antimatter created in the Big Bang should have canceled each other out, leaving nothing instead of the something we call the universe. Why that didn’t happen may have been partially revealed in a recent experiment in the Tevatron — a particle accelerator — at Fermilab, in Batavia, Ill.
We proceed gingerly when interpreting the results of high-energy physics experiments. The way it has been explained is that it all comes down to a very slight bias, an asymmetry, in the behavior of a subatomic particle, the neutral B-meson. As it oscillates between its matter and antimatter states, it shows a slight predilection for matter, a result predicted by Andrei Sakharov.
That preference for one state over another — becoming matter more readily than it becomes antimatter — is small, about 1 percent. But that may be enough to explain the preponderance of matter. We expect more news on this front from the Tevatron and its larger European cousin, the Large Hadron Collider.
What these physicists are searching for is a model of the universe and its origins. We are, as we know, made of stardust, of elements formed in the Big Bang and in the subsequent creation and destruction of stars. The very existence of this universal stuff called matter may depend on a slight bias in the frenetic variation of a particle we can only momentarily detect, in the hottest kilns humanity has so far created.