What is a Lepton?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Scientist with beakers
Scientist with beakers

Leptons are a family of elemental particles that includes the electron, the muon, the tau, and their associated neutrinos. Like quarks, which make up the protons and neutrons in the atomic nucleus, the lepton is a fermion, meaning it has a quantum spin of ½. Other fundamental particles with different spins are called bosons and mediate force interactions between the fermions. Fermions, made up of the lepton and quark, are the “meat” of matter, while bosons are the “skeleton”.

In comparison to quarks, a lepton is light. An electron’s mass is 1⁄1836 of an atomic mass unit (amu), the approximate mass of a hydrogen atom. The non-lepton mass in the hydrogen atom comes from the nucleus. The other two lepton variants – the muon and the tau – are significantly heavier. The tau lepton weighs almost twice as much as a proton.

There are three types of lepton, as mentioned before: the electron, the muon, and the tau. Each of these has an associated neutrino – the electron neutrino, the muon neutrino, and the tau neutrino. Neutrinos have almost zero mass and no charge, and travel close to the speed of light.

The electron and the other base leptons have a negative charge, are more stable than neutrinos, and can orbit atomic nuclei. The electron is the most stable of the three and can be found throughout conventional matter. The muon and tau are created during particle accelerator experiments or through cosmic ray impacts. Each of these six particles has an associated antiparticle of opposite charge, bringing the total number of leptons to 12. These antiparticles are called antielectrons, antimuons, and antitaus.

When systems containing leptons interact with each other, the total number of leptons tends to be conserved. The rare circumstance in which the number isn’t conserved is called the chiral anomaly. Sometimes, leptons change their type, but this usually requires high energies and the heavier leptons aren’t very stable.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments

anon40203

How does Superstring Theory work into this?

Ginger2

It seems the strong force property is like the "Chinese finger puzzles" we played with as kids. It was a soft weave "tube" that you put over your right index finger and left index finger. As you tried to pull your fingers apart, the weave grew tighter and you couldn't do it. If you simply pushed your two fingers closer together, the weave opened up and it was easy to get apart. It was a riot to watch the person struggle.

Manguela

So if protons and neutrons are made up of quarks what would an electron be made up of? Would it be correct to say that when it gets to the bottom of everything, it's all just energy? For example is a quark just made up of a ball of energy?

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    • Scientist with beakers
      Scientist with beakers