Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Top Quarks Are Short Lived

The top quark is the heaviest fundamental particle and is also heavier than any possible hadron made of two or three, or even theoretically four or five, confined quarks. Therefore, it also the shortest lived particle that exists (this explains why top quarks do not become confined in hadrons - top quarks decay into other kinds of particles before the strong force has time to form a hadron involving a top quark).
Because top quarks are exceptionally heavy - 173.3 GeV, give or take less than a GeV - they have a large amount of energy to impart to their decay products, and this has several consequences; one of these is their quite ephemeral nature. Theoretical calculations allow us to predict that for such an object the lifetime depends on the inverse of the third power of the mass, yielding a very short existence for top quarks - less than a trillionth of a trillionth of a second!
Even imagining such a short time interval is a challenge. Light quanta do not even manage to travel through a proton in 10^-24 seconds. How to picture it? Let's say that if you could travel from here to the center of the Andromeda galaxy in one second (forgetting the limits of special relativity for a moment), a top quark created when you start that quite fast journey would decay before you move by one millimeter!
A recent paper directly measures this lifetime (called decay width) more accurately than any prior study.

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