My eyes strain at the stars, and yet between them, where the unknowable things hide, where the mechanisms of change clunk endlessly around the axle of truth, I still see nothing. The glow of its starry eyes can relinquish a dash of knowledge through the dark veil, but some say it blinks too fast; you’ll miss it. I say, keep staring.
The chair falls, faster this time; I swear it. The clattering wood mocks my attention in a smug show. I whip the chair into the corner, throw a book at it. The chair teeters before tumbling, placating me, perhaps, but yes, slower over there. As I caress the stale air, my outstretched palm tingles, but its just an itch. The tendons in my knuckles tighten my antenna-like fingers against shivering. I must not stir any disturbance as I stand rigid, closing my eyes, blocking out all perception but touch, waiting for the faint signal in the chill air. Tell me you’re here. Tell me what you are.
Behind my eyelids, I remember the glowing sun, how the wheat thrashed my bent knees; when the wind carried the light for a moment briefer than a flap of butterfly wings; a small blip in the brightness of our star. Mom paid no heed until Dale shouted I was ruining his crops; he must stay stringent with his learning, she said; whatever weird thing he’s doing isn’t proper learning, he rebutted. She collapsed into him, giggling, and they stumbled back into the house, leaving me alone with the wind that no one ever feels, unless you’re looking close and in the right places. The Dark Wind is easier to feel when the air is still; so I keep it cold and restrain my shivers.
The door shakes with thunderous knocks; I open it in a rush but discover nobody. “Oh Judy, you look dazzling!” The neighbours. I return inside my self-made fridge. It is time for work.
Water excavates silt from my skin until my face gleams. Grease slicks back my hair, moulding, from unkempt tangles and cowlicks, an icy slope. I moisturize a skating rink over my palms and cheeks. The fury of products onto body relents only once I am clean and shiny. If I’m touched, I’ll be tarnished. Even though we are all Baryons here, people in my position keep our distance on the street lest a palmprint mark our skin; we scooch over on the bus so nothing can crinkle our suits.
“I have not seen you in a while.” An old friend of my mother’s barked, just boarded. “You still toppling chairs in fields? What did you call it? A Dark Wind?” He chuckles not expecting an honest answer. I shake my head.
A couple in jumbled jeans and soiled tube tops necks in front of me, squeezing each other’s nape and shoulder. My handcloth soaks restless sweat as my neck melts. A phone chimes. The sound vibrates the plastic advertisements over our heads. The couple ignores it, the ringing lost beneath the riotous sucking squelch of their smooching. I push the discordant beeping from my mind so not to get angry at them; still, it blemishes my calm.
The hairs of my arm scurry in place, like those mice at Dale’s farm, dashing ignorant of the hawks’ gaze. I swing in my seat; is it here–
Oh! Now I feel the vibrations in my pocket. My ear is hot.
“Hello? What? You found one?” I stop breathing. “Don’t touch him!” My yelling draws more attention. Fine, it’s my stop. “DON’T TOUCH HIM!”
Quiet has washed the Institute of ticks, clicks, and tapping. My scream resounds like the birth of a star in deep space. “Did anybody touch him?” Their heads are all trembling at me; I’m the Head Baryon here. The Antimatter boy is sitting near a table of old magazines. Everyone looks fine. Nobody touched him. “What’s he looking at?”
“I don’t think he’s looking at anything. His eyes just do that.”
His swiveling pupils shift around the room, but I find nothing out of the ordinary in their path. I speak to him gently, “What happened to the rest of the Antimatter? Was it the Dark Wind? Is it here with us now?”
“Sir, he won’t know that; it happened at the dawn of our age, billions of years ago.” He is troubled by my crouching; his feet stalk closer. “Sir! Don’t touch him! Remember what happens when normal Baryons touch an Antimatter.” Something worse than getting bumped on the bus. I lean back, returned to my senses.
“I wasn’t going to touch him…It’s just, his eyes are speeding; he must see something we can’t. Let’s get him isolated in the Penning Chamber and see what we can determine.”
The Penning Chamber is empty save for one chair. The floor has been mopped and ventilators keep out dust. I can guarantee there is nothing in there but the boy, his chair, and the air we chill. And hopefully the Wind.
Through the lone window, we watch his eyes spiral, the erratic rhythm dizzying to follow. “They’re speeding up. It’s in there with him. Must be.”
“Antimatter eyes do that. Antimatters regulate their physiology like we do, but in a regular cycle, not a consistent state of homeostasis. To know if his eyes are spinning faster or slower than normal, if they actual notice something, you have to measure it relative to his breathing. Could just be his metabolism is on an uptick. You now, other things are different about them too. Heart is on the other side of the body; other organs are flipped too. He may look young, but he is actually decades old according to his bone growth; almost aging in reverse. But in the end, they function the same as us despite all that.”
“Well, that can’t be true. They disappeared for a reason! There must be something about them we have no version of, something asymmetrical that explains why there are so few of them now. It could be a connection to the Dark Wind. If this strange boy is perceptive to it when we’re not, well, who knows what we can prove!”
“We will never definitely prove anything, but evidence we may find. Let’s stay quiet and watch.”
Blips on the screen, lines snaking up and down, like worms panicking after rain. I cannot stall my attention. The screen, the boy, the screen, the boy. Come on.
“You think it’s in the Chamber with him? Really?” The researcher closes to me asks; I forget her name.
“It’s everywhere, all the time. It’s all over that room. Trust me. He will see it.”
The single light of the Penning Chamber gifts the abandoned lot of frazzled weeds on the Antimatter’s head a seductive luminescence. A wailing phantom sucks air down this throat before the blowing of a whale bursts it back out. The swivel of his eyes almost squeak, like a forgotten joint in the belly of a ship, hidden behind jets of steams, never oiled. They flit back and forth, up and down, faster and faster.
“There’s nothing, sir. His cycling is normal; panicked, then relaxed; adrenaline, then calming oxytocin. His eyes are not excited; just behaving normal. No evidence he sees a damn thing we don’t, sorry.”
I stay behind to put comforts into the room, a bed, some food. I almost leave, back to my chair in my own empty apartment, but the screen is still running; the boy has not moved. I pass hours in a stiffened state worshipping the monitor as if it was some holy mural adorning a temple’s wall, praying for the data to speak. It screams: you did not look close enough.
The bleeps on the monitor suddenly crescendo as a sobbing breaks the silence. I cannot see what’s happening; someone has switched off the light in the Penning Room. The Antimatter boy feels something, but the monitors are not picking it up; this cannot be a normal part of his cycling. We must be measuring the wrong thing. I need to see. The door does not creak, but the gut punch of dry air forces a cough and my polished leather echoes against the tile’s lustre. His eyes freeze; I cradle them in my gaze like Fabergé eggs. I slide to him; I will not break our mutual hold to ponder the placement of my feet.
Eyes flick up. I spin. Nothing there. Just as quick, they are back on me. He raises his arm, flexes his fingers out. Tears, blaring the light, pool in the crevices of his whimpering cheeks. His hand shakes. I raise mine, edge closer. His breathing bangs like gongs, but his eyes don’t move. Yes. What do you feel? If I could touch the rhythm of his pulse, I can know what he knows, feel what he feels…
Just a little closer…
His eyes! His eyes!
Just a little closer…
Our fingers dangle before each other, mating octopuses frozen apart in blocks of ice.
A little closer…
“This is so dumb.” The pronouncement claps like thunder. “I’m already looking for another job. This is all such a load of bullocks.”
“I know? Even if there was some sort of ‘secret wind’ we’re not gonna find it.”
“Oooh, it’s everywhere! It’s everywhere! Boo!”
“Ah! Don’t touch me ya creep.”
“Also, what’s with the kid? So weird. I bet the Antimatter can see something and just ain’t spilling.”
“Just the kid? I say both of ‘em need to get laid.”
“Freaking pointless. Whatever, man. Let’s just get your wallet. I need to get drunk and not think about this anymore.”
“That’s no joke. I’m ready to party. Hey, get the lights.”
“Oh yeah. Who left them on?”
Flick. Everything shuts down.
Once again I was staring into nothingness, waiting for something to blink.
Behind the Science
For decades, two big mysteries have confounded scientists who study the stars. First, something is making stars at the edge of our galaxies rotate faster than they should; something bends light around wells of gravity in seemingly empty space; something holds galaxy clusters together that should be flying apart given their visible mass. There is gravity in places we did not expect because there was no visible mass to cause it. Dark matter is an explanation. First proposed in the early 1930s, it is an invisible mass that cannot be detected with astronomical instruments because it does not interact directly with light; it interacts only through gravity. Dark matter, spread throughout the universe, could account for five times more mass in the universe than ordinary (baryonic) matter, yet we still do not know what comprises it or even if it exists. One hypothesis is ultralight axion particles, which, due to the wave-particle duality of quantum physics, can oscillate throughout the universe as waves. This hypothesis for dark matter has been dubbed the “axionic wind” as a result.
Second, two forms of “visible” matter exist, matter and antimatter. The two are generally symmetrical, termed CPT (charge, parity, time) invariance, meaning the universe would look much like it does now, with the same physical laws, if it was composed of antimatter, just all the signs would be flipped (ie antiprotons have negative rather than positive charge). The Big Bang should have produced matter and antimatter in equal amounts, yet matter dominates the structure of our universe today. Antimatter can be made in experiments, but it is hard to find in nature as antimatter annihilates upon contact with ordinary matter. If matter and antimatter are indeed symmetrical in their properties, there is no reason in the standard model of particle physics why matter makes up the universe and antimatter is missing.
Smorra and colleagues in the Ulmer Fundamental Symmetries Laboratory at RIKEN, Japan and the BASE-collaboration at CERN hoped to solve both these mysteries in an experiment testing if antimatter does have an asymmetry to matter in its ability to interact with the “axionic wind.” Perhaps antimatter can interact more strongly with dark matter than ordinary matter. Thus, studying such dark matter-antimatter interactions could give clues both about what constitutes dark matter and why matter dominates the universe. The researchers placed an antiproton produced by particle accelerators at CERN in a Penning trap, which uses magnetic fields to prevent antimatter particles from interacting with any matter. Over nearly three months, Smorra and colleagues made hundreds of observations of the antiproton’s spin precession frequency, which should be constant in a magnetic field of a certain strength. Essentially, the axis of a charged particle’s spin (technically the “magnetic moment”) wobbles relative to the direction of the magnetic field in a regular way, just as the Earth’s axis wobbles over thousands of years (see image). However, interactions with waves of ultralight axions could change the frequency of that regular precession in a detectable way (red arrow in image). Although the researchers did not discover such a change in the rate of the antiproton’s precession, they did put a limit on the strength of such interactions, if they do exist. More importantly, their out-of-the-box thinking creates hope for finding answers to these two mysteries in interactions between dark matter and antimatter.
Image at top: dark matter ring in galaxy cluster CI 0024 + 17. Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M.J. Jee (John Hopkins University).