Aug. 30, 2023
How one UCalgary physicist is trying to solve the universe’s great quantum mystery
One of the greatest philosophical questions of our time is simple: Why are we here?
Timothy Friesen, an assistant professor in physics at UCalgary, looks at antimatter to try to understand the nature of quantum mechanics and answer just that question.
Yet, his research is anything but simple. Working both in the lab at UCalgary and at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, Friesen probes antimatter to find clues about why it’s different than ordinary matter.
Friesen was recently awarded a Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF) grant for his project that looks at how microwave radiation interacts with quantum states of antimatter. He was one of 15 UCalgary researchers to receive a JELF grant as part of a major federal funding announcement on Aug 29, 2023. See a full list of JELF recipients at the bottom of this article.
With the grant, Friesen and his team will be able to build infrastructure here at the university that they can bring to CERN to examine the question that’s been puzzling physicists for the last century: other than its electrical charge, how is antimatter different than matter?
Why does antimatter matter?
The physicist and Nobel prize winner Paul Dirac predicted antimatter in 1928 when trying to combine quantum mechanics with Einstein's theory of relativity. Although a century has gone by since then, many questions remain.
What we do know: an anti-particle has the opposite electrical charge of a regular particle of matter. A proton, for example, is positive and so the anti-proton is negative. But the charge is the only difference physicists can find. Yet they know there must be another distinction, otherwise, antimatter would be all around us, just like ordinary matter.
Or look at it from a bleaker perspective: if an equal amount of anti-matter existed in our universe, ordinary matter wouldn’t exist at all. When an anti-particle and its particle partner collide, they annihilate each other.
“If you extrapolate that to the Big Bang, antimatter and matter would meet and boom, there would be nothing left but energy,” says Friesen.
So, if every matter particle is mirrored by an antimatter particle, and antimatter and matter cancel each other out — why are we here? Why is our universe filled with matter at all?
Studying the elusive antimatter
What makes up antimatter isn’t quite as rare as you might think. Radioactive decay produces anti-electrons, otherwise known as positrons. The radioactive decay of potassium, for example, can be found in an ordinary banana. But for anti-protons to exist, much more energy is needed.
In the aptly named Antimatter Factory at CERN, physicists accelerate matter particles to extremely high energies and collide them with a metal target, which produces antiprotons. These antiprotons are then slowed down to low energies so they can be held and studied.
Friesen studies the hydrogen atom specifically — the simplest atom.
“We look at the antimatter version of hydrogen and say, is there something different about this than the hydrogen version, something different that could explain why we don’t find it in nature?”
To study this, he uses microwave radiation, the same technology used in microwave ovens or cell phone towers, to interact with the quantum states of antimatter.
The JELF grant will give Friesen and his team the lab infrastructure here in Calgary to develop, build and test apparatuses like microwave circuits and trap structures that can then be used at CERN to study anti-hydrogen.
The big mystery of the universe
Friesen knows he may never answer the remaining questions around the differences between matter and antimatter.
“When someone finds the answer to these questions, it’s going to be a massive, massive deal,” he says. “Something is wrong in our understanding of physics. It’s one of the biggest mysteries.”
Even if he’s not the one to paint a clearer picture of how our universe came to be, he finds his work “incredibly addicting.” The mystery of it all, combined with his love for Star Trek and the science fiction aspect of antimatter, means it’s the kind of work any child would dream of.
“The fact that I get to produce, manipulate and study antimatter, that’s just really, really cool,” says Friesen. “At the same time, there’s this huge hole in our understanding of physics. it’s incredibly motivating trying to answer these questions.”
UCalgary’s CFI JELF grant recipients are:
- Dr. Hatem Abou-Zeid, PhD, Schulich School of Engineering: “An Integrated Ultra Low Latency Networking and Sensing Platform for Metaverses and 6G Applications”
- Dr. Kristin Baetz, PhD, Faculty of Science: “High Resolution Live Imaging of Yeast to Help Cure what Ales You”
- Dr. Mahdis Bisheban, PhD, Schulich School of Engineering: “Collaborative Multirotor Aerial Vehicles (MAVs) Subject to Disturbances for Precise Maneuvers”
- Dr. Justin Chun, MD, PhD, Cumming School of Medicine: “Digital Spatial Profiling and Molecular Spatial Imaging for the Precision Medicine in Nephrology Program”
- Drs. Tyler Cluff, PhD, and Ryan Peters, PhD, Faculty of Kinesiology: “Robotic Balance Platforms for Probing Human Standing Balance”
- Dr. Timothy Friesen, PhD, Faculty of Science: “Quantum Control of Anti-Atoms with Microwave Technologies”
- Dr. Mark Gillrie, MD, PhD, Cumming School of Medicine: “Visualizing Human Vascularized Organs-on-Chips to Understand Endotheliitis in Infectious Diseases”
- Dr. Omid Haji-Ghassemi, PhD, Faculty of Science: "Structural and Functional Studies of Protein Kinase-ion Channel Interactions"
- Dr. Hadis Karimipour, PhD, Faculty of Science: “Intelligent Security Monitoring of Critical Cyber-Physical Systems”
- Dr. Nargis Khan, PhD, Cumming School of Medicine: “Role of Bone Marrow Niche in Regulation of Host Immunity against Tuberculosis”
- Dr. Michael Monument, MD, Cumming School of Medicine: “Therapeutic Synergy of Surgery, Radiation and STING Immunotherapy in Pre-Clinical Models of Sarcoma”
- Dr. Henry Nguyen, MD, Cumming School of Medicine: “Microbiota-Host Interactions and the Gut-Liver Axis in Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease”
- Dr. Richa Pandey, PhD, Schulich School of Engineering: “Engineering Synthetic Biology Integrated Wearable Medical Devices for Longitudinal and Real-time Health Monitoring”
- Dr. John Soghigian, PhD, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine: “Long-Read Sequencing for Genomics of Parasites and Vectors”
- Dr. Ahmed Tiamiyu, PhD, Schulich School of Engineering: “Design and Additive Manufacturing of Lightweight Nanocrystalline Alloys”