Scott Menary discusses the breakthrough that changed the way scientists look at the universe and contemplates York’s earning its spot on an international stage.
Physics Professor Scott Menary, of York University’s Faculty of Science, contributed to a game-changing research endeavour at CERN ─ the subject of a 2016 article in the journal Nature ─ further establishing the University’s reputation for excellence in physics.
In this Q&A, Menary shares the story of the breakthrough related to the Big Bang theory and reflects on York as both a unique, community-based environment for physics students and Faculty members, and a recognized and highly valued scientific contributor on a global scale.
Q. This research was part of the ongoing ALPHA experiment, an international collaboration based at CERN whose aim is stable trapping of antihydrogen atoms. What were the objectives of this new research?
A. The purpose was to compare the antimatter system to the matter system to see if there were any differences. We have hydrogen, the most precisely measured chemical element in science. Now we want to look at the antimatter version of it, and see if we can make the same measurements. What may be shocking to most people is that we expect antimatter and matter to be the same in all its properties ─ the same mass, the same value of the charge.
In the theoretical predictions of the Big Bang theory, matter and antimatter are exactly the same. That theory is the most precise theory we’ve ever created. But something’s wrong there in the sense that in the Big Bang theory, matter and antimatter are created in equal amounts. So what happened to the antimatter? There has to be some difference between matter and antimatter, and yet all of our theories say there isn’t.
At the end of the day, physics is an experimental subject. We test nature.
Q. What is the significance of this research?
A. It turned out to be the best antimatter-to-matter comparison.
Q. This work was part of a huge joint venture, executed at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. Describe this collaborative international effort and York University’s unique contribution.
A. We have 45 scientists at work on this, from Denmark, the U.K., Brazil, the U.S., Canada and Israel. This research was particularly collaborative because it involved many specialists. My contribution was to a specific type of hardware, a so-called silicon vertex detector. That’s why they asked me to join.
“We’ve gone from not really being involved in international projects to having quite a strong reputation. We are welcomed into collaborations. Now the physics community knows where we are: York University.” – Scott Menary
Q. What does this high-profile research say about York’s position on an international stage in physics and astronomy?
A. There are three of us working in high-energy physics: myself, [Professors] Sampa Bhadra and Wendy Taylor. We all work on collaborative international projects.
We’ve gone from not really being involved in international projects to having quite a strong reputation. We are welcomed into collaborations. There was one high-energy physicist here 20 years ago, Bill Frisken, who did collaborate internationally but the group has grown. For sure, now the physics community knows where we are: York University.
Q. What can you say about the importance of funding this kind of research?
A. This is really fundamental research. Historically, things have always come out of that – things that we didn’t expect or know about before. You can’t predict that kind of thing.
It’s very important to fund fundamental research. You need this research to do applied research. It’s incredibly important to do these things because you don’t know what will come out of it and, of course, that’s what makes it exciting.
Q. One year has passed since the Nature article. Has this research opened up more possibilities for collaboration or different avenues of research?
A. That paper is just one in a series of papers we’re doing. As we speak, my colleagues are at CERN zapping antihydrogen with lasers to try to see if it shines the same way that hydrogen does. We also want to test how antihydrgen falls. Does antimatter feel gravity the same way that matter does? We’re building a new detector to look at this. It’s got a great name: Radial Time Projection Chamber. Sounds very Star Trekky.
“It’s very important to fund fundamental research. It’s incredibly important to do these things because you don’t know what will come out of it and, of course, that’s what makes it exciting.” – Scott Menary
This research is all with the same focus: comparing antihydrogen to hydrogen.
Q. Any suggestions for the next generation, the future physicists who might be interested in studying at York?
A. Follow your heart; if something interests you, go for it. We can offer the opportunity to do research in quite a number of things. Whatever interests you, we probably have people here that are good at it. This is a huge university and so even a midsized physics department is actually comparable to most physics departments in the country.
The thing about our department is that it’s big enough that we have a broad range of topics, but it’s small enough in that we all know each other.
Q. Is there a sense of community in York’s physics department?
A. Yes, for sure. We know the students, and the students know us on a more personal level. I think there’s a really good relationship between students and faculty.
Don't miss this YouTube video, featuring Scott Menary, the first in a new series called "2 Minutes, 3 Questions," launched by the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation at York University.
This research was funded by CNPq, FINEP-RENAFAE (Brazil); FNU, Carlsberg Foundation (Denmark); JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowships for Research Abroad (Japan); ISF (Israel); STFC, EPSRC, the Royal Society and the Leverhulme Trust (UK); DOE,NSF (USA); and VR (Sweden). Canadian funding came from NSERC, NRC/TRIUMF, AITF and FRQNT.
The article, “An improved limit on the charge of antihydrogen from stochastic acceleration,” was published in Nature (2016). For more information about Menary and his research, read the related YFile article and visit his faculty profile.
By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, firstname.lastname@example.org