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Can a Pear Shape Answer Some of the Fundamental Questions of the Universe

Pear shaped nucleus
(Photo : Photo Courtesy of The University of Liverpool)

Someone famous once said that the biggest of events come from the smallest of beginnings.

They very well could have been talking about the latest news out of CERN, the European science lab best known for its Large Hadron Collidor. Researchers at CERN have announced that they have turned up the first evidence of exotic atoms with pear-shaped nuclei.

Why does this matter? These rare-and extremely short lived-particles could help scientists answer one of physics Big Questions: how come there's Something instead of Nothing?

Typically, the nucleus of a particle is spherical of elliptical. While neither shape is a perfect circle, it is nowhere near pear shaped.  Researchers were able to create "pear shaped" nuclei by smashing beams of radium and radon atoms into targets of nickel, cadmium and tin, using CERN's ISOLDE ion separator facility. The resulting collisions excited the nuclei to energy levels at which they revealed their internal structures via the patterns of gamma rays they gave off.  (Sorry though, no Hulks were created from this experiment.)

So what made these so different?

It seems that the placement of the neutrons and protons provides hints at the subatomic interactions taking place. This would result in the pear shape-at least according to University of Michigan professor and co-atom-squeezer Tim Chupp, who reportedly said that the pear shape "means the neutrons and protons, which compose the nucleus, are in slightly different places along an internal axis."

This is one of those Big Things, but lets try and break it down. The reason our universe exists and we're here-and you are hopefully reading this-is, for a reason we aren't quite sure of yet, back at Big Bang, we ended up with a small asymmetry: there was more matter than antimatter. Sorry perfectionists and all those who like symmetry-this is a great thing. If matter and antimatter had been perfectly in balance, they would have annihilated each other and we would definitely not be having this conversation.

Lets ramp the crazy up: there's nothing in the Standard Model that predicts the matter-antimatter asymmetry. Researchers hope that experiments like this one can explain that, finally answering the nothing or something question.

The research for this experiment has been published in Nature.



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