Do protons decay?
||Is it possible that these fundamental building blocks of atoms have a finite lifetime?
Image: Sandbox Studio with Reidar Hahn|
The stuff of daily existence is made of atoms, and all those atoms are made of the same three things: electrons, protons and neutrons.
Protons and neutrons are very similar particles in most respects. They're made of the same quarks, which are even smaller particles, and they have almost exactly the same mass.
Yet neutrons appear to be different from protons in an important way: They aren't stable. A neutron outside of an atomic nucleus decays in a matter of minutes into other particles.
What about protons?
A free proton is a pretty common sight in the cosmos. Much of the ordinary matter (as opposed to dark matter) in galaxies and beyond comes in the form of hydrogen plasma, a hot gas made of unattached protons and electrons. If protons were as unstable as neutrons, that plasma would eventually vanish.
But that isn't happening. Protons — whether inside atoms or drifting free in space — appear to be remarkably stable. We've never seen one decay.
However, nothing essential in physics forbids a proton from decaying. In fact, a stable proton would be exceptional in the world of particle physics, and several theories demand that protons decay.
If protons are not immortal, what happens to them when they die, and what does that mean for the stability of atoms?
—Matthew R. Francis