Remember that time you mixed vinegar and bicarb soda and decided you wanted to be a scientist? Maybe you should have followed through. Then you could have been one of the guys that just developed a tabletop "gun" that creates positrons by shooting lasers at gold.
A team of physicists working at the University of Michigan just published a paper about their device in Physical Review Letters. But basically, it's small enough to sit on a table and can create positrons — anti-electrons — like its big, big brother, the particle accelerator at CERN. Positrons, if you aren't familar, are found around black holes and pulars. You know, cool stuff.
PhysOrg explains the process in more detail:
The team fired a petawatt laser at a sample of inert helium gas. Doing so caused the creation of a stream of electrons moving at very high speed. Those electrons were directed at a very thin sheet of metal foil which caused them to smash into individual metal atoms. Those collisions resulted in a stream of electron and positron emissions — the two were then separated using magnets.
The researchers report that each blast of their gun lasts just 30 femtoseconds, but each firing results in the production of quadrillions of positrons — a density level comparable to those produced at CERN.
For scale: petawatt is one quadrillion watts, a femtosecond is a one quadrillionth of a second, and a quadrillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000.
The thought is that we can use gadgets like this to study positrons more easily than ever and learn more about those gaping black holes in space and other things like them. It's pretty exciting stuff, even if you and I can't quite understand the subtle nuances of it. But that's what the scientists are for. Good thing they all stuck with it. [PhysOrg]