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Particle decay is the spontaneous process of one unstable subatomic particle transforming into multiple other particles. The particles created in this process (the final state) must each be less massive than the original, although the total invariant mass of the system must be conserved. A particle is unstable if there is at least one allowed final state that it can decay into. Unstable particles will often have multiple ways of decaying, each with its own associated probability. Decays are mediated by one or several fundamental forces. The particles in the final state may themselves be unstable and subject to further decay.

The term is typically distinct from radioactive decay, in which an unstable atomic nucleus is transformed into a lighter nucleus accompanied by the emission of particles or radiation, although the two are conceptually similar and are often described using the same terminology.


Probability of survival and particle lifetimeEdit

Particle decay is a Poisson process, and hence the probability that a particle survives for time t before decaying is given by an exponential distribution whose time constant depends on the particle's velocity:

  is the mean lifetime of the particle (when at rest), and
  is the Lorentz factor of the particle.

Table of some elementary and composite particle lifetimesEdit

All data is from the Particle Data Group.

Type Name Symbol Mass (MeV) Mean lifetime
Lepton Electron / Positron   0.511  
Muon / Antimuon   105.7  
Tau lepton / Antitau   1777  
Meson Neutral Pion   135  
Charged Pion   139.6  
Baryon Proton / Antiproton   938.2  
Neutron / Antineutron   939.6  
Boson W boson   80,400  
Z boson   91,000  

Decay rateEdit

Note that this section uses natural units, where  

The lifetime of a particle is given by the inverse of its decay rate,  , the probability per unit time that the particle will decay. For a particle of a mass M and four-momentum P decaying into particles with momenta  , the differential decay rate is given by the general formula (expressing Fermi's golden rule)

n is the number of particles created by the decay of the original,
S is a combinatorial factor to account for indistinguishable final states (see below),
  is the invariant matrix element or amplitude connecting the initial state to the final state (usually calculated using Feynman diagrams),
  is an element of the phase space, and
  is the four-momentum of particle i.

The factor S is given by

m is the number of sets of indistinguishable particles in the final state, and
  is the number of particles of type j, so that  .

The phase space can be determined from

  is a four-dimensional Dirac delta function,
  is the (three-)momentum of particle i, and
  is the energy of particle i.

One may integrate over the phase space to obtain the total decay rate for the specified final state.

If a particle has multiple decay branches or modes with different final states, its full decay rate is obtained by summing the decay rates for all branches. The branching ratio for each mode is given by its decay rate divided by the full decay rate.

Two-body decayEdit

Note that this section uses natural units, where  

In the Center of Momentum Frame, the decay of a particle into two equal mass particles results in them being emitted with an angle of 180° between them.
...while in the Lab Frame the parent particle is probably moving at a speed close to the speed of light so the two emitted particles would come out at angles different from those in the center of momentum frame.

Decay rateEdit

Say a parent particle of mass M decays into two particles, labeled 1 and 2. In the rest frame of the parent particle,


which is obtained by requiring that four-momentum be conserved in the decay, i.e.


Also, in spherical coordinates,


Using the delta function to perform the   and   integrals in the phase-space for a two-body final state, one finds that the decay rate in the rest frame of the parent particle is


From two different framesEdit

The angle of an emitted particle in the lab frame is related to the angle it has emitted in the center of momentum frame by the equation


Complex mass and decay rateEdit

Note that this section uses natural units, where  

The mass of an unstable particle is formally a complex number, with the real part being its mass in the usual sense, and the imaginary part being its decay rate in natural units. When the imaginary part is large compared to the real part, the particle is usually thought of as a resonance more than a particle. This is because in quantum field theory a particle of mass M (a real number) is often exchanged between two other particles when there is not enough energy to create it, if the time to travel between these other particles is short enough, of order 1/M, according to the uncertainty principle. For a particle of mass  , the particle can travel for time 1/M, but decays after time of order of  . If   then the particle usually decays before it completes its travel.[1]

See alsoEdit


External linksEdit