The Field Guide to Particle Physics

Prepare for trouble! And make it double! Today we confront the two Cascade or Xi /ksee/ baryons which each have a PAIR of strange quarks.

Show Notes

The Field Guide to Particle Physics : Season 2
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The Cascade Particles

Prepare for trouble! And make it double! Today we confront the two Cascade or Xi /ksee/ baryons which each have a PAIR of strange quarks.

Xi minus checks in with a mass of about 1322 MeV, making it the heaviest baryon we’ve encountered so far. This is just as well, as it comprised of two of those heavier, strange quarks. Together with a third, down quark, it also has a total electric charge of minus 3 thirds or… minus one.

Xi 0 is just a little bit lighter with a mass of 13 hundred and 14 MeV. Its two strange quarks are paired with an up quark, which gives it an electric charge of twice minus one third PLUS one third, or… zero.

Decays of the Xi minus

Like many strange particles, the cascades take quite a while to decay. The Xi minus takes a solid fraction of a nano-second, the usual time it takes to convince one of those strange quarks to decay into an up quark. The result? The strange-strange-down bag of quarks converts to up-strange-down bag, otherwise known as the Lambda 0 baryon.  As usual, that decay is accompanied by some other junk, and in this case the net result is a pi minus.

As we’ve already seen, the Lambda 0 and the pi minus are both unstable themselves. The former converts to either a proton or a neutron and the latter typically decays to a muon and then an electron.

If you tried to sketch that all out, you’d find a LONG decay chain of a LOT of different particles. This gives the cascades their name. Producing ONE Xi baryon results in a cascading SHOWER of particles all the way down to that familiar, stable stuff like protons, neutrons and electrons.

Now the Xi minus ALMOST ALWAYS decays to the Lambda 0 with a pi minus. Like 99.8 percent of the time!     The rest of the time we find some cuter decays, each incredibly rare, happening less than a thousandth of a percent of the time.

These rarer decays shed some rather alarming light on the very identity of the strange quark. But BEFORE we get to that, we should talk about the Xi 0.

Decays of the Xi 0

The Xi 0 takes about TWICE as long as the Xi minus to decay, which is still, only a third of a nano-second. What’s short for humans is a seriously overripe old age for an elementary particle.

Like it’s partner, the Xi 0 decays into a Lambda0 with a pion. This time a neutral pion. This happens 99.5% of the time. These decays are a little twisted.

Its is the same thing we saw with those charged sigma baryons. We need to convince an a bag of of three quarks: up-strange-and-strange, to decay in something that looks like the up-down-strange bag of the Lambda zero. This is troublesome precisely because the strange quark ONLY EVER decays to an up quark.

As with decays of the Sigma baryons, things just need to rearrange a little bit. The Sigma Plus you might recall decays into a proton and a pi zero thanks to a W boson. Similarly, one strange quark of the Xi0 decays to an up quark by emitting a W- boson. The W- decays to a down-anti-upquark pair so fast the rest of the quarks barely notice. The down quark runs away with the other “up and strange” quarks from the original Xi 0, and the anti-up quark leaves with the freshly minted up quark as a neutral pion.

If that sounds convoluted, it is. It helps to have a diagram to look at, which you can do on our website,

Incidentally, the other, rarer decays of the Xi zero match up quite nicely what you’d expect from those rare decays of the Xi minus. More on those in a later episode.

Spin Angular Momentum

The spin angular momentum of both Xi 0 and Xi minus is simply hbar over 2, just like the proton and the neutron. Well those and the three Sigma baryons AND the Lambda baryon. 

That’s a total of eight distinct particles, which is a lot, but you can rest easy knowing there are NO other particles with that spin angular momentum made from combinations of those three quarks. And this is no accident. 

Any OTHER, three particle combination of up, down and strange quarks - like a baryon with three of the same quarks, like the Delta Baryons we’ve already seen - will have a higher spin angular momentum. 

You could think of that as if the quarks were orbiting each other inside that subnuclear goo at a faster and faster pace. And we’ll meet some examples of these soon enough. 

The story behind WHY this should be is fascinating, nerdy and otherwise adds some useful scaffolding to an ever expanding ZOO of wild, subatomic particles.

More on that, next time.

What is The Field Guide to Particle Physics?

This is your informal guide to the subatomic ecosystem we’re all immersed in. In this series, we explore the taxa of particle species and how they interact with one another. Our aim is give us all a better foundation for understanding our place in the universe.

The guide starts with a host of different particle species. We’ll talk about their masses, charges and interactions with other particles. We’ll talk about how they are created, how they decay, and what other particles they might be made of.