“I sense you’ve heard of antimatter, Mr. Langdon?” Vittoria was studying him, her dark skin in stark contrast to the white lab.
Langdon looked up. He felt suddenly dumb. “Yes. Well . . . sort of.”
A faint smile crossed her lips. “You watch Star Trek.”
Langdon flushed. “Well, my students enjoy . . .” He frowned. “Isn’t antimatter what fuels the U.S.S. Enterprise ?”
She nodded. “Good science fiction has its roots in good science.”
“So antimatter is real ?”
“A fact of nature. Everything has an opposite. Protons have electrons. Up‑quarks have down‑quarks. There is a cosmic symmetry at the subatomic level. Antimatter is yin to matter’s yang. It balances the physical equation.”
Langdon thought of Galileo’s belief of duality.
“Scientists have known since 1918,” Vittoria said, “that two kinds of matter were created in the Big Bang. One matter is the kind we see here on earth, making up rocks, trees, people. The other is its inverse—identical to matter in all respects except that the charges of its particles are reversed.”
Kohler spoke as though emerging from a fog. His voice sounded suddenly precarious. “But there are enormous technological barriers to actually storing antimatter. What about neutralization?”
“My father built a reverse polarity vacuum to pull the antimatter positrons out of the accelerator before they could decay.”
Kohler scowled. “But a vacuum would pull out the matter also. There would be no way to separate the particles.”
“He applied a magnetic field. Matter arced right, and antimatter arced left. They are polar opposites.”
At that instant, Kohler’s wall of doubt seemed to crack. He looked up at Vittoria in clear astonishment and then without warning was overcome by a fit of coughing. “Incred . . . ible . . .” he said, wiping his mouth, “and yet . . .” It seemed his logic was still resisting. “Yet even if the vacuum worked, these canisters are made of matter. Antimatter cannot be stored inside canisters made out of matter. The antimatter would instantly react with—”
“The specimen is not touching the canister,” Vittoria said, apparently expecting the question. “The antimatter is suspended. The canisters are called ‘antimatter traps’ because they literally trap the antimatter in the center of the canister, suspending it at a safe distance from the sides and bottom.”
“Suspended? But . . . how ?”
“Between two intersecting magnetic fields. Here, have a look.”
Vittoria walked across the room and retrieved a large electronic apparatus. The contraption reminded Langdon of some sort of cartoon ray gun—a wide cannonlike barrel with a sighting scope on top and a tangle of electronics dangling below. Vittoria aligned the scope with one of the canisters, peered into the eyepiece, and calibrated some knobs. Then she stepped away, offering Kohler a look.
Kohler looked nonplussed. “You collected visible amounts?”
“Five thousand nanograms,” Vittoria said. “A liquid plasma containing millions of positrons.”
“Millions? But a few particles is all anyone has ever detected . . . anywhere.”
“Xenon,” Vittoria said flatly. “He accelerated the particle beam through a jet of xenon, stripping away the electrons. He insisted on keeping the exact procedure a secret, but it involved simultaneously injecting raw electrons into the accelerator.”
Langdon felt lost, wondering if their conversation was still in English.
Kohler paused, the lines in his brow deepening. Suddenly he drew a short breath. He slumped like he’d been hit with a bullet. “Technically that would leave . . .”
Vittoria nodded. “Yes. Lots of it.”
Kohler returned his gaze to the canister before him. With a look of uncertainty, he hoisted himself in his chair and placed his eye to the viewer, peering inside. He stared a long time without saying anything. When he finally sat down, his forehead was covered with sweat. The lines on his face had disappeared. His voice was a whisper. “My God . . . you really did it.”
Vittoria nodded. “My father did it.”
“I . . . I don’t know what to say.”
Vittoria turned to Langdon. “Would you like a look?” She motioned to the viewing device.
Uncertain what to expect, Langdon moved forward. From two feet away, the canister appeared empty. Whatever was inside was infinitesimal. Langdon placed his eye to the viewer. It took a moment for the image before him to come into focus.
Then he saw it.
The object was not on the bottom of the container as he expected, but rather it was floating in the center—suspended in midair—a shimmering globule of mercurylike liquid. Hovering as if by magic, the liquid tumbled in space. Metallic wavelets rippled across the droplet’s surface. The suspended fluid reminded Langdon of a video he had once seen of a water droplet in zero G. Although he knew the globule was microscopic, he could see every changing gorge and undulation as the ball of plasma rolled slowly in suspension.
“It’s . . . floating,” he said.
“It had better be,” Vittoria replied. “Antimatter is highly unstable. Energetically speaking, antimatter is the mirror image of matter, so the two instantly cancel each other out if they come in contact. Keeping antimatter isolated from matter is a challenge, of course, because everything on earth is made of matter. The samples have to be stored without ever touching anything at all—even air.”
Langdon was amazed. Talk about working in a vacuum.
“These antimatter traps?” Kohler interrupted, looking amazed as he ran a pallid finger around one’s base. “They are your father’s design?”
“Actually,” she said, “they are mine.”
Kohler looked up.
Vittoria’s voice was unassuming. “My father produced the first particles of antimatter but was stymied by how to store them. I suggested these. Airtight nanocomposite shells with opposing electromagnets at each end.”
“It seems your father’s genius has rubbed off.”
“Not really. I borrowed the idea from nature. Portuguese man‑o’‑wars trap fish between their tentacles using nematocystic charges. Same principle here. Each canister has two electromagnets, one at each end. Their opposing magnetic fields intersect in the center of the canister and hold the antimatter there, suspended in midvacuum.”
Langdon looked again at the canister. Antimatter floating in a vacuum, not touching anything at all. Kohler was right. It was genius.
“Where’s the power source for the magnets?” Kohler asked.
Vittoria pointed. “In the pillar beneath the trap. The canisters are screwed into a docking port that continuously recharges them so the magnets never fail.”
“And if the field fails?”
“The obvious. The antimatter falls out of suspension, hits the bottom of the trap, and we see an annihilation.”
Langdon’s ears pricked up. “Annihilation?” He didn’t like the sound of it.
Vittoria looked unconcerned. “Yes. If antimatter and matter make contact, both are destroyed instantly. Physicists call the process ‘annihilation.’”
Langdon nodded. “Oh.”
“It is nature’s simplest reaction. A particle of matter and a particle of antimatter combine to release two new particles—called photons. A photon is effectively a tiny puff of light.”
Langdon had read about photons—light particles—the purest form of energy. He decided to refrain from asking about Captain Kirk’s use of photon torpedoes against the Klingons. “So if the antimatter falls, we see a tiny puff of light?”
Vittoria shrugged. “Depends what you call tiny. Here, let me demonstrate.” She reached for the canister and started to unscrew it from its charging podium.
Without warning, Kohler let out a cry of terror and lunged forward, knocking her hands away. “Vittoria! Are you insane?”