Flavour (particle physics)

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Electron.svg Muon.svg Tau lepton.svg
Electron neutrino.svg Muon neutrino.svg Tau neutrino.svg
Six flavours of leptons
Flavour in particle physics
Flavour quantum numbers:

Related quantum numbers:


Flavour mixing


In particle physics, flavour or flavor refers to a species of an elementary particle. The Standard Model counts six flavours of quarks and six flavours of leptons. They are conventionally parameterized with flavour quantum numbers that are assigned to all subatomic particles, including composite ones. For hadrons, these quantum numbers depend on the numbers of constituent quarks of each particular flavour.

Intuitive description

Elementary particles are not eternal and indestructible. Unlike in classical mechanics, where forces only change a particle's momentum, the weak force can alter the essence of a particle, even an elementary particle. This means that it can convert one quark to another quark with different mass and electric charge, and the same for leptons. From the point of view of quantum mechanics, changing the flavour of a particle by the weak force is no different in principle from changing its spin by electromagnetic interaction, and should be described with quantum numbers as well. In particular, flavour states may undergo quantum superposition.

In atomic physics the principal quantum number of an electron specifies the electron shell in which it resides, which determines the energy level of the whole atom. In an analogous way, the five flavour quantum numbers of a quark specify which of six flavours (u, d, s, c, b, t) it has, and when these quarks are combined this results in different types of baryons and mesons with different masses, electric charges, and decay modes.

Flavour symmetry

If there are two or more particles which have identical interactions, then they may be interchanged without affecting the physics. Any (complex) linear combination of these two particles give the same physics, as long as they are orthogonal or perpendicular to each other. In other words, the theory possesses symmetry transformations such as , where Template:Mvar and Template:Mvar are the two fields, and Template:Mvar is any Template:Gaps unitary matrix with a unit determinant. Such matrices form a Lie group called SU(2) (see special unitary group). This is an example of flavour symmetry.

In quantum chromodynamics, flavour is a global symmetry. In the electroweak theory, on the other hand, this symmetry is broken, and flavour changing processes exist, such as quark decay or neutrino oscillations.

Flavour quantum numbers


Template:Offtopic All leptons carry a lepton number L = 1. In addition, leptons carry weak isospin, T3, which is −{{ safesubst:#invoke:Unsubst||$B=1/2}} for the three charged leptons (i.e. electron, muon and tau) and +{{ safesubst:#invoke:Unsubst||$B=1/2}} for the three associated neutrinos. Each doublet of a charged lepton and a neutrino consisting of opposite T3 are said to constitute one generation of leptons. In addition, one defines a quantum number called weak hypercharge, YW, which is −1 for all left-handed leptons.[1] Weak isospin and weak hypercharge are gauged in the Standard Model.

Leptons may be assigned the six flavour quantum numbers: electron number, muon number, tau number, and corresponding numbers for the neutrinos. These are conserved in electromagnetic interactions, but violated by weak interactions. Therefore, such flavour quantum numbers are not of great use. A separate quantum number for each generation is more useful: electronic lepton number (+1 for electrons and electron neutrinos), muonic lepton number (+1 for muons and muon neutrinos), and tauonic lepton number (+1 for tau leptons and tau neutrinos). However, even these numbers are not absolutely conserved, as neutrinos of different generations can mix; that is, a neutrino of one flavour can transform into another flavour. The strength of such mixings is specified by a matrix called the Pontecorvo–Maki–Nakagawa–Sakata matrix (PMNS matrix).


All quarks carry a baryon number B = {{ safesubst:#invoke:Unsubst||$B=1/3}}. In addition they carry weak isospin, T3 = ±{{ safesubst:#invoke:Unsubst||$B=1/2}}. The positive-T3 quarks (up, charm, and top quarks) are called up-type quarks and negative-T3 quarks (down, strange, and bottom quarks) are called down-type quarks. Each doublet of up and down type quarks constitutes one generation of quarks.

For all the quark flavour quantum numbers (strangeness, charm, topness and bottomness) the convention is that the flavour charge and the electric charge of a quark have the same sign. Thus any flavour carried by a charged meson has the same sign as its charge. Quarks have the following flavour quantum numbers:

  • Isospin, less ambiguously known as "isobaric spin", which has value I3 = {{ safesubst:#invoke:Unsubst||$B=1/2}} for the up quark and I3 = −{{ safesubst:#invoke:Unsubst||$B=1/2}} for the down quark.
  • Strangeness (Template:Mvar): Defined as S = −(nsn), where ns represents the number of strange quarks (Template:SubatomicParticle) and n represents the number of strange antiquarks (Template:SubatomicParticle). This quantum number was introduced by Murray Gell-Mann. This definition gives the strange quark a strangeness of −1 for the above-mentioned reason.
  • Charm (Template:Mvar): Defined as C = (ncn), where nc represents the number of charm quarks (Template:SubatomicParticle) and n represents the number of charm antiquarks. Is +1 for the charm quark.
  • Bottomness (Template:Mvar): Also called 'beauty'. Defined as B′ = −(nbn), where nb represents the number of bottom quarks (Template:SubatomicParticle) and n represents the number of bottom antiquarks.
  • Topness (Template:Mvar): Also called 'truth'. Defined as T = (ntn), where nt represents the number of top quarks (Template:SubatomicParticle) and n represents the number of top antiquarks. However, because of the extremely short half-life of the top quark, by the time it can interact strongly it has already decayed to another flavour of quark (usually to a bottom quark). For that reason the top quark doesn't hadronize, that is it never forms any meson or baryon.

These five quantum numbers, together with baryon number (which is not a flavour quantum number) completely specify numbers of all 6 quark flavours separately (as nqn, i.e. an antiquark is counted with the minus sign). They are conserved by both the electromagnetic and strong interactions (but not the weak interaction). From them can be built the derived quantum numbers:

The terms "strange" and "strangeness" predate the discovery of the quark, but continued to be used after its discovery for the sake of continuity (i.e. the strangeness of each type of hadron remained the same); strangeness of anti-particles being referred to as +1, and particles as −1 as per the original definition. Strangeness was introduced to explain the rate of decay of newly discovered particles, such as the kaon, and was used in the Eightfold Way classification of hadrons and in subsequent quark models. These quantum numbers are preserved under strong and electromagnetic interactions, but not under weak interactions.

For first-order weak decays, that is processes involving only one quark decay, these quantum numbers (e.g. charm) can only vary by 1 (|C| = ±1); ΔB′ = ±1. Since first-order processes are more common than second-order processes (involving two quark decays), this can be used as an approximate "selection rule" for weak decays.

A quark of a given flavour is an eigenstate of the weak interaction part of the Hamiltonian: it will interact in a definite way with the W and Z bosons. On the other hand, a fermion of a fixed mass (an eigenstate of the kinetic and strong interaction parts of the Hamiltonian) is normally a superposition of various flavours. As a result, the flavour content of a quantum state may change as it propagates freely. The transformation from flavour to mass basis for quarks is given by the Cabibbo–Kobayashi–Maskawa matrix (CKM matrix). This matrix is analogous to the PMNS matrix for neutrinos, and defines the strength of flavour changes under weak interactions of quarks.

The CKM matrix allows for CP violation if there are at least three generations.

Antiparticles and hadrons

Flavour quantum numbers are additive. Hence antiparticles have flavour equal in magnitude to the particle but opposite in sign. Hadrons inherit their flavour quantum number from their valence quarks: this is the basis of the classification in the quark model. The relations between the hypercharge, electric charge and other flavour quantum numbers hold for hadrons as well as quarks.

Quantum chromodynamics

Flavour symmetry is closely related to chiral symmetry. This part of the article is best read along with the one on chirality.

Quantum chromodynamics (QCD) contains six flavours of quarks. However, their masses differ and as a result they are not strictly interchangeable with each other. The up and down flavours are close to having equal masses, and the theory of these two quarks possesses an approximate SU(2) symmetry (isospin symmetry).

Under some circumstances, the masses of the quarks can be neglected entirely. One can then make flavour transformations independently on the left- and right-handed parts of each quark field. The flavour group is then a chiral group SUL(Nf) × SUR(Nf).

If all quarks had non-zero but equal masses, then this chiral symmetry is broken to the vector symmetry of the "diagonal flavour group" SU(Nf), which applies the same transformation to both helicities of the quarks. Such a reduction of the symmetry is called explicit symmetry breaking. The amount of explicit symmetry breaking is controlled by the current quark masses in QCD.

Even if quarks are massless, chiral flavour symmetry can be spontaneously broken if the vacuum of the theory contains a chiral condensate (as it does in low-energy QCD). This gives rise to an effective mass for the quarks, often identified with the valence quark mass in QCD.

Symmetries of QCD

Analysis of experiments indicate that the current quark masses of the lighter flavours of quarks are much smaller than the QCD scale, ΛQCD, hence chiral flavour symmetry is a good approximation to QCD for the up, down and strange quarks. The success of chiral perturbation theory and the even more naive chiral models spring from this fact. The valence quark masses extracted from the quark model are much larger than the current quark mass. This indicates that QCD has spontaneous chiral symmetry breaking with the formation of a chiral condensate. Other phases of QCD may break the chiral flavour symmetries in other ways.

Conservation laws

Absolutely conserved flavour quantum numbers are: (including the baryon number for completeness)

In some theories, the individual baryon and lepton number conservation can be violated, if the difference between them (BL) is conserved (see chiral anomaly). All other flavour quantum numbers are violated by the electroweak interactions. Strong interactions conserve all flavours.


Some of the historical events that lead to the development of flavour symmetry are discussed in the article on isospin.

See also


  1. See table in {{#invoke:Citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=journal }}

Further reading

External links