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What’s the Antimatter

By Daniel Hubbard | June 10, 2013

The other night my daughter borrowed the movie Angels & Demons and wanted to watch it with me. Part of the plot hinges on the theft of a container of antimatter from CERN, the particle physics laboratory outside Geneva, Switzerland. I think she wanted to get my reaction to the physics.

Antimatter is in some ways just like ordinary matter and in some ways it is matter’s complete opposite. A positron (antielectron) has the same mass as an electron. They have the same amount of electric charge but whereas an electron’s charge is negative a positron’s charge is positive. Matter and antimatter have many of the same properties yet many properties are completely contrary. When a particle and its antiparticle meet, they annihilate leaving nothing but energy behind. The original particle and antiparticle are gone.

Antidocuments

Physicists do actually work with antimatter. It really is something that is sought out, made and used. What your genealogy may need is for you to seek out and use some antidocuments.

Antimatter annihilates matter. Antidocuments annihilate your documents. Just like physicists who work with antimatter. Genealogists need to seek out and work with antidocuments. Let them annihilate what you thought you knew.

I have a death record for a man that tells me who his father is. I have his marriage record that lists his father as a witness. I have his children’s baptismal records that show his siblings and his wife’s siblings as godparents. I have his baptismal record from half a world away that identifies his parents. He came to America and I found him living in his father’s household in 1870. I found him married and living with his wife and children in 1880. I also looked for the father in 1880 and found him living next door to his son with a different wife. I’d found an antidocument. There were two men of that name, born in the same month in the same country to fathers of the same name. They came to the same city.

The second antidocument that I encountered was a second death record that showed that the two men died a few blocks from each other and within a few months of each other. It almost seemed that they had literally annihilated each other. I had found a man that fit the description of the man that I was after. Like some sort of antimatter, he has many properties that are the same as the man I am seeking but he annihilated the idea that I had found the correct father.

There must have been some connection between these two men, just like there are theoretical connections between particles and antiparticles. The siblings of one did not end up as godparents to the children of the other by accident but the family connections are not what they at first had seemed and I have the a few antidocuments to thank for that realization.

Sources of Antidocuments

Physicists need a source of antiparticles. At CERN we used a machine called the antiproton accumulator. You will also need sources of antidocuments.

One way to find antidocuments is to investigate people who seem to be associated with your person. Learning those relationships can annihilate your hypothesis and get you closer to the truth. You can think of those people as “auntymatter.” Then there are all the people with similar names and biographies that can be pondered. Of course, there is always the tried-and-true method of examining every document you can concerning the person you’re investigating. If for example you discover that an obscure record implies that he or she died younger than your hypothesis allows, you’ve found an antidocument.

So how was the physics?

As a physicist who spent almost a decade at CERN, I can say that the physics in Angels & Demons was fine for moving a plot along but not for anything else. When I was a grad student the local newspaper, La Tribune de Geneve, ran a paranoid sounding letter to the editor claiming that CERN was producing antimatter for military purposes, i.e. blowing things up. (I’ve often wondered if that was somehow the seed for the book and the movie.) We thought that this was hilarious and one night on shift at the experiment (which used a beam of antimatter) we calculated how long it would take the CERN antiproton accumulator to accumulate 1 gram of antimatter (for comparison, a U.S. nickel weighs 5 grams). I don’t remember if the answer was three or four times the current age of the universe but the difference between 40 and 54 billion years of continuous, flawless operation are not that big when it comes to thinking about the practicality of the whole thing. Then of course, the antimatter produced needs to be held impossibly well because even the smallest mistake means losing it all.

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