Antiparticles are subatomic particles that are the opposite of other subatomic particles in some way or another. In the case of the antielectron and the antiproton, this difference is a matter of charge. The electron is negatively charged, and the antielectron is positively charged; the proton is positively charged, and the antiproton is negatively charged. Since the neutron carries no electric charge, its antiparticle, the antineutron, is characterized has having a spin opposite to that of the neutron.
The discovery of antiparticles is a rather remarkable scientific detective story. In the late 1920s, British physicist Paul Dirac (1902–1984) was working to improve the model of the atom then used by scientists. As he performed his mathematical calculations, he found that electrons should be expected in two energy states, one positive and one negative. However, the concept of negative energy was unknown to scientists at that time.
Dirac suggested that some electrons might carry a positive electrical charge, the opposite of that normally found in an electron. Scientists were skeptical about the idea. Electrons were well known, and the only form in which they had ever been observed was with a negative charge.
The dilemma was soon resolved, however. Only five years after Dirac proposed the concept of a positive electron, just such a particle was found by American physicist Carl Anderson (1905–1991). Anderson named the newly found particle a positron, for posi tive elec tron.
Anderson's discovery raised an obvious question: If an antielectron exists, could there also be an antiproton, a proton with a negative charge? That question took much longer to answer than did Dirac's original problem. It was not until 1955 that Italian-American physicist Emilio Segrè (1905–1989) and American physicist Owen Chamberlain (1920– ) produced antiprotons by colliding normal protons with each other inside a powerful cyclotron (atom-smashing machine).
If antielectrons and antiprotons exist, is it possible that antimatter also exists? Antimatter would consist of antiatoms made of antiprotons and antielectrons. The idea may seem bizarre because we have no experience with antimatter in our everyday lives. Scientists now believe that antimatter is common in the universe, but we don't have any direct contact with it.
If antimatter does exist, locating it may be a problem. Scientists know that the collision of an antiparticle with its mirror image—an electron with a positron, for example—results in the annihilation of both, with the release of huge amounts of energy. Thus, any time matter comes into contact with antimatter, both are destroyed and converted into energy.
[ See also Subatomic particles ]