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Subatomic Astronomy

January 31, 2019

Some beautiful but remote lights twinkle across the sky this evening. Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, shines at us from almost nine light-years away. Betelgeuse, the orange shoulder of Orion, is hundreds of light-years away. And arcing across the sky, the Milky Way is the combined glow of millions of stars, many of which are farther still.

Looking at this view under a dark, moonless sky can help us appreciate the vastness of the universe. But to fully appreciate its workings, scientists also must look at the other end of the size scale — to the tiniest particles.

It’s at these scales that scientists can probe some of the mysteries of the universe. One is why the universe consists almost entirely of matter, with only a tiny bit of antimatter. The Big Bang should have created them in almost equal amounts. But there may have been an imbalance, so most of the antimatter was destroyed.

Another mystery is whether particles of gravity “jump” into hidden dimensions. If they do, that could explain why gravity is so much weaker than the other basic forces of nature.

To solve these mysteries, scientists use particle accelerators, which ram together subatomic particles at almost the speed of light. These experiments are telling us about the first moments of the universe, and the processes that shape it today — processes that work not only on the smallest scales, but across the immensity of time and space.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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