Saturday, March 8, 2014

Antimatter: What's the scoop?

I was a science major in school. My father fed that fascination with all things scientific, from my obsession with dinosaurs to my total failure in chemistry class. Hey, I said I was a science major; I didn't say I was all that and a bag of chips. But when I was four, I remember watching Fantasia on the big screen, sitting on my dad's lap, and naming every single dinosaur depicted in the segment Rite of Spring.

I also remember a speech in High School English class about the function and operation of a Breeder Reactor, and the sea of blank, confused stares that told me not another student had any idea what I just got done telling them. I had been so immersed in reading my dad's science books, I simply assumed that other kids just as smart as me had access to the same knowledge.

One of my beta readers put me in the same place when he who told me, "Don't assume we know what you're talking about. Put the cookies on the bottom shelf." I took that to heart when I was in the process of polishing and fixing my first novel Becoming NADIA. I had to run a fine line between explaining my science and boring the hell out of my readers.

So this week, I'm going to spend some time covering the science behind antimatter, featured in my series as the "weapon behind the weapon." This is the stuff I weeded out of the novel so it wouldn't get bogged down in the details and start sounding like a textbook written by an amateur.

So without further ado:

The modern concept of antimatter was conceived by French Physicist Paul Dirac back in 1928. His main philosophy was that an equation should "look beautiful" as well as function properly. Which, to this mathematics failure, seems odd. But as the language of most theoretical sciences is mathematics, I guess that's pretty deep. Anyway, he conceived this idea that all matter had an opposite material image, or "anti-matter."

His theory was proven years later when someone using a monstrous device called a Super Collider actually confirmed its existence. It seems that antimatter is created as a by-product of a fission high-energy particle collision. In other words, if you take a substance and stick it to a target in a giant circle miles wide, and you slam it with a stream of sub-atomic particles accelerated by a magnetic field, some of the stuff that gets knocked loose actually changes it's electrical charge and becomes its opposite. It takes a helluva lot of energy to make antimatter, and if you don't catch it pretty damned quick, some nasty stuff happens.

Now, matter and antimatter are so the opposite of each other, that if they ever meet, they totally destroy each other. It's a process called annihilation, and when that happens, everything is converted to energy. A MASSIVE amount of energy. How much, you ask? Let's look at another great mind of the 20th Century, Albert Einstein.

Most people are familiar with the equation E=mc2. Almost nobody knows what it really means. What Einstein theorized was this: The amount of energy existing in a matter is equal to the mass of that matter times the speed of  light, squared. The faster you slam something, the more of its energy gets released. In fact, the matter actually converts into energy. This was illustrated in graphic detail at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII.

Now, let me be clear: Those were NOT antimatter reactions. But it showed what matter-to-energy conversion could do. And here's the awesome part. Only a fraction of a fraction of the matter in those bombs was converted to energy. Out of the 64 Kg (about 140 pounds) of Uranium used in the Hiroshima bomb, most of the U-235 never even underwent the atom-splitting process called fission. Actually, estimates made it at about 600 milligrams (a little more than a pound). Out of that amount, only one half of one milligram (.0005 grams) was converted into energy. So the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and killed 60,000 people was only .0007% efficient.
In an antimatter reaction, 100% of the matter and 100% of the antimatter are converted, and all of their energy is released in the form of gamma radiation and high-speed neutrinos. In other words, there would be nothing left of either, and anything around the reaction would suffer severe damage as a result. Let's look at what would have happened had 100% of the Little Boy bomb had converted: The bomb as it was released the same energy as 13,000 tons of TNT. If that 64 kg was antimatter, the result would have been 2,749.44 Million tons of TNT. Probably enough to blow Japan in half. I found a neat little calculator at Go ahead, have fun.
I used antimatter in my book because that was how my original dream went, and I now I bent a few "rules" making it work for my story. I had a nuclear physicist argue with me that there was no way I could collect 48 grams of antimatter for Nadia's skeleton to hold, and he's probably right. But in my world, someone found a way to make it happen. That is where the "willing suspension of unbelief" comes into the equation.
Hopefully, no one ever finds a way to make an honest-to-God antimatter weapon. If you thought nuclear power was a Pandora's box, we ain't seen nothin' yet.
Nadia, you're one of a kind. And we can hope to God that's true.

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