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Results in on why life, the universe and everything exists

10-year study indicates that theoretically it shouldn't

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It's one of the most difficult questions that human philosophy and science have ever faced: Why are we here? Why is the universe and all that's in it here?

The question becomes particularly knotty when one reflects on modern physics and the issue of antimatter. Theory shows that at the creation of the universe, equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been called into existence.

The trouble here is that when matter meets antimatter, both are instantly annihilated in a devastating blast of energy. Thus, according to theory, everything should have swiftly become nothing again. Instead, much much later, we see a universe in which there's a lot of normal matter - though certainly very thinly spread out - and almost no antimatter at all.

What boffinry can't account for is why there should have been more matter than antimatter at the beginning, and thus how it is that life, the universe and everything comes to be in existence now.

"The question is: why was there an excess of one over the other in the first place?" says Pieter Mumm, physicist at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology. "There are lots of theories attempting to explain the imbalance, but there's no experimental evidence to show that any of them can account for it. It's a huge mystery on the level of asking why the universe is here. Accepted physics can't explain it."

Mumm and his colleagues had rather been hoping to sort this out by conducting a 10-year probe into neutron decay at the NIST Centre for Neutron Research. There are two ways for a neutron to decay: both result in a proton, an electron and an electron antineutrino, but they come out in different configurations. If the lengthy investigation had shown that either path was more commonly taken than the other, this would have given the physicists a handle on just why anything now exists.

Sadly from the point of view of an answer to the Great Question, no such difference could be detected. Still, Mumm and the crew aren't too downhearted as their results, at least, have shut off various speculative theories.

"We have placed very tight constraints on what these theories can say," Mumm says. "We have given theory something to work with. And if we can modify our detector successfully, we can envision limiting large classes of theories. It will help ensure the physics community avoids traveling down blind alleys."

The research is published in Physical Review Letters, and there's commentary for laymen by NIST here. ®

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