(Submitted July 24, 1997)
Why is it impossible, at this point in time, to convert energy into matter?
It happens all the time. Particle accelerators convert energy into subatomic
particles, for example by colliding electrons and positrons. Some of the
kinetic energy in the collision goes into creating new particles.
It's not possible, however, to collect these newly created particles and
assemble them into atoms, molecules and bigger (less microscopic) structures
that we associate with 'matter' in our daily life. This is partly because
in a technical sense, you cannot just create matter out of energy: there are
various 'conservation laws' of electric charges, the number of leptons
(electron-like particles) etc., which means that you can only create matter /
anti-matter pairs out of energy. Anti-matter, however, has the unfortunate
tendency to combine with matter and turn itself back into energy. Even though
physicists have managed to safely trap a small amount of anti-matter using
magnetic fields, this is not easy to do.
Also, Einstein's equation, Energy = Mass x the square of the velocity of
light, tells you that it takes a huge amount of energy to create matter in
this way. The big accelerator at Fermilab can be a significant drain on the
electricity grid in and around the city of Chicago, and it has produced
very little matter.
Koji Mukai, with David Palmer, Andy Ptak and Paul Butterworth
for the Ask an Astrophysicist