elementary particles: Conservation Laws and Symmetry

Some conservation laws apply both to elementary particles and to microscopic objects, such as the laws governing the conservation of mass-energy, linear momentum, angular momentum, and charge. Other conservation laws have meaning only on the level of particle physics, including the three conservation laws for leptons, which govern members of the electron, muon, and tau families respectively, and the law governing members of the baryon class.

New quantities have been invented to explain certain aspects of particle behavior. For example, the relatively slow decay of kaons, lambda hyperons, and some other particles led physicists to the conclusion that some conservation law prevented these particles from decaying rapidly through the strong interaction; instead they decayed through the weak interaction. This new quantity was named strangeness and is conserved in both strong and electromagnetic interactions, but not in weak interactions. Thus, the decay of a strange particle into nonstrange particles, e.g., the lambda baryon into a proton and pion, can proceed only by the slow weak interaction and not by the strong interaction.

Another quantity explaining particle behavior is related to the fact that many particles occur in groups, called multiplets, in which the particles are of almost the same mass but differ in charge. The proton and neutron form such a multiplet. The new quantity describes mathematically the effect of changing a proton into a neutron, or vice versa, and was given the name isotopic spin. This name was chosen because the total number of protons and neutrons in a nucleus determines what isotope the atom represents and because the mathematics describing this quantity are identical to those used to describe ordinary spin (the intrinsic angular momentum of elementary particles). Isotopic spin actually has nothing to do with spin, but is represented by a vector that can have various orientations in an imaginary space known as isotopic spin space. Isotopic spin is conserved only in the strong interactions.

Closely related to conservation laws are three symmetry principles that apply to changing the total circumstances of an event rather than changing a particular quantity. The three symmetry operations associated with these principles are: charge conjugation (C), which is equivalent to exchanging particles and antiparticles; parity (P), which is a kind of mirror-image symmetry involving the exchange of left and right; and time-reversal (T), which reverses the order in which events occur. According to the symmetry principles (or invariance principles), performing one of these symmetry operations on a possible particle reaction should result in a second reaction that is also possible. However, it was found in 1956 that parity is not conserved in the weak interactions, i.e., there are some possible particle decays whose mirror-image counterparts do not occur. Although not conserved individually, the combination of all three operations performed successively is conserved; this law is known as the CPT theorem.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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