Three “quarks” for the Quarks!

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on the nature of interactions
By Joe Jarvis

Like Alice going down the rabbit hole, the search for “simple” answers to nature's basic puzzles and fundamental structure only seems to get “curious and curiouser” as one progresses on such a journey. However, by taking some concepts and, dare I say, certain “half baked” mathematical constructs for granted, it is possible to push aside the seemingly intractable and come away with a feeling of virtual understanding. Sacrificing detail for succinctness seems justified especially when dealing with areas where said “exactness” might be a matter of history at the next MeV. The mechanism of neutron decay and sister action of proton transformation is a perfect subject for such a treatment. Atoms like to decay (really nuclei decay, atoms are nuclei plus appropriate electrons). Atoms decay when it is energetically favorable, meaning that there is another thing they could be that has less mass and energy. Remember that mass is energy, so while an atom might at first seem to be “lighter” it doesn't have to be. A perfect example of this is Lithium-4 and Helium-4. He-4, whose nucleus is the loveable alpha particle, is a very stable and happy atom consisting of 2 protons and 2 neutrons. Li-4, on the other hand is very unstable and consists of 3 protons and 1 neutron. Now, if you remember that. a free neutron is more massive than a free proton, why doesn't He-4 decay into Li-4 on its own? Because, although it is true that the individual components of Li-4 weigh less than He-4, some extra energy is needed to have Li-4 exist, even if its only for its short lifetime, an average of 1.3*10-22 s. The sum weighs more than its parts. This extra mass/energy can be explained by energy levels. Just like in chemistry for electrons, nucleons have only certain accessible energy states available to them. And, He-4 has its protons occupying the two available states at the lowest energy level. Adding another proton (making Li-5), or having a neutron decay into a proton (making Li-4) would require having the extra proton in a higher level and hence require some energy for it to happen; its just not going to happen on its own. Binding energy is the term given to this aspect. While a free neutron will gladly decay, a bound one will not, because some of its “neutroness” is used in keeping fellow nucleons bound together. It is this liberation of binding energy, whether during fusion for low mass atoms, or during fission for higher mass atoms, that allows life to exist. Without it, the Sun would be a cold, dark thing. Now, lets go a little deeper down the rabbit hole. To explore atom decay, we had to understand its parts, and to understand neutron and proton decay, it is also necessary to examine their constituents. It turns out neutrons and protons are not elementary particles, they are made up of quarks. There are six flavors of quarks: up, down, top (formerly known as truth), bottom (formerly known as beauty), strange and charm. Neutrons and protons only contain the up and down quark. The other flavors make up various exotic matter found during high energy particle collisions and supernovae explosions. Quarks obey the confinement principle which states that quarks are forever bound into the hadrons they make up and cannot exist freely. This is because the force that binds quarks together does not diminish over distance, so it would take an infinite amount to separate any one from another. The force responsible for atomic decay is the weak force and its force carrier is the W boson, a very heavy (about 100 times a protons mass), charged elementary particle. In contrast with the electromagnetic force, whose force carrier is the massless photon, which acts over an infinite distance, the weak force with the massive W boson carrier, only acts over a limited range. Now, lets open the hood on the neutron and proton and see how this works.

The proton and neutron are both fermions, specifically meaning they obey Fermi-Dirac statistics, but simply meaning that only one fermion at a specific energy can occupy a specific place in space at a time, as earlier visited for the Li-4 case. Fermions can be elementary like the quarks, or composite like a neutron or proton (being made up of smaller fermions). Fermions are the stuff that matter is made of. It is precisely a consequence of F-D statistics that matter gets it rigidity. Bosons, on the other hand, obey Bose-Einstein statistics, meaning that the same energy bosons can occupy the same place in space. The elementary bosons are force carriers, like the photon. And, bosons too can be

Now that we have taken a look at the players, lets look at the game. First, lets examine a free neutron decaying. A neutron is made up of 2 down quarks and 1 up quark. Because the down quark has a charge of -1/3, and the up a charge of 2/3, the neutron is neutral. The neutron's extra mass compared to the proton is also evident from the down being more massive than the up quark. When a neutron decays it leaves behind a proton, an electron, and an electron antineutrino. When this occurs inside a nucleus, its the ever-popular beta minus decay. n  p  e−   e  Now, this is the formula one would find in a textbook on nuclear engineering. It shows the neutron transforming into a proton and giving off a beta particle (electron) as well an electron neutrino, a bane of nuclear reactors since that neutrino's stolen energy is all but irrecoverable. The formula does, however, mask a little of the true process. Neither the neutron or proton is a fundamental particle, so what is really going on? One of the down quarks is changing into an up quark. Its not the neutron that is transforming, but a down quark; and that 3 quark combo one is left with just happens to be a proton. At the fundamental level, beta decay is the quarks business. udd  uud  e−  e  Okay, so what is the mechanism for one quark to change flavor. Quarks, being fermions, are subject to the weak interaction. The force carrier of the weak force is W boson.

A quark can change flavor if it absorbs or emits a W boson. For the process of beta minus decay the W boson is involved. The W- boson has a charge of -1, so it is really this loss of charge that
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facilitates the down to up quark transformation. This can be visualized , however not actualized, as a quick two step process. A down quark changes flavor to an up quark by emitting a W- boson; and d  u  W − ; W −  e−   e  a W- boson decays into an electron and an electron antineutrino. The Wboson is not a real particle in this case, but a virtual particle, meaning it can't be detected and does not exist for any well defined time and space. (Notice how the electron antineutrino can be viewed as an electron neutrino going backwards in time!) Beta minus decay, regardless of the quantum mechanisms, still seems rather intuitive – a larger guy turns into a smaller guy and some extra stuff, not unlike a subatomic piñata. Beta plus decay, on the other hand is a little different, and is not exactly the reverse of beta minus. Beta plus is the transformation of a proton into the heavier neutron. It does not involve taking an electron, an electron antineutrino and joining them with a proton (the neutrino wouldn't be likely to interact with the matter at all anyways). Beta plus decay will not occur in isolation, it will only occur when it is energetically favorable and possible; i.e. the daughter nucleus must have a higher binding energy than the parent. This extra energy can be thought of as being converted into an electron/positron pair and an electron neutrino, where the electron and proton combine to make a neutron, leaving the positron and neutrino as decay products. For all nuclear aspects the beta plus decay(positron emission) looks like: p  n  e   e But, in all cases where it is energetically favorable, this type of decay is accompanied by a process known as electron capture. EC involves an inner bound electron to be captured by the nucleus, thus transforming the proton into an electron and emitting a neutrino to correct for the momentum and p  e−  n   e energy difference. In total, the overall view amounts to an electron being captured ,a proton being converted into a neutron, and a positron plus electron neutrino being emitted. So, nuclear engineers will refer to the decay radiation as beta plus, while referring to the decay mode as EC. In the cases where there is not enough energy to create a positron/electron pair through pair production, EC is the sole contributor to decay, and no positron will be emitted. This view is of course at the nuclear level, at the more fundamental quantum level, the true picture can be visualized. A W boson is involved, just like in the beta minus case. By emitting a W+ boson an up quark can change flavor into a down quark. This virtual W+ boson will then decay into a positron and an electron neutrino. This isn't exactly analogous to the W- case, since up quark decay will not occur in isolation; it needs a little push. u  d  W  ; W   e   e The decay mode of EC at the quantum level is also due to the W+ boson, however, its Feynman diagram requires a little more treatment and the payoff is not worth the possible confusion. Radioactive decay is an intriguing part of nature, and without it, life would not be the same. Much of the catalyst for evolution at the chemical level would not occur if it were not for the mutative effects of radiation; let alone all the wonderful energy our planet gets from the Sun. And in the end, we can thank two fermions and a boson – the up and down quark, and the elusive W boson.

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