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W and Z bosons

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W and Z bosons

W±and Z0 Bosons
Composition Elementary particle
Statistics Bosonic
Interactions Weak interaction
Theorized Glashow, Weinberg, Salam (1968)
Discovered UA1 and UA2 collaborations, CERN, 1983
Mass W: 80.385±0.015 GeV/c2[1]
Z: 91.1876±0.0021 GeV/c2[1][2]
Decay width W: 2.085±0.042 GeV/c2[1]
Z: 2.4952±0.0023 GeV/c2 [1]
Electric charge W: ±1 e
Z: 0 e
Spin 1

The W and Z bosons (together known as the weak bosons or, less specifically, the intermediate vector bosons) are the elementary particles that mediate the weak interaction; their symbols are W+, W, and Z. The W bosons have a positive and negative electric charge of 1 elementary charge respectively and are each other's antiparticles. The Z boson is electrically neutral and is its own antiparticle. The three particles have a spin of 1, and the W bosons have a magnetic moment, while the Z has none. All three of these particles are very short-lived, with a half-life of about 3×10−25 s. Their discovery was a major success for what is now called the Standard Model of particle physics.

The W bosons are named after the weak force. The physicist Steven Weinberg named the additional particle the "Z particle",[3] later giving the explanation that it was the last additional particle needed by the model – the W bosons had already been named – and that it has zero electric charge.[4]

The two W bosons are best known as mediators of neutrino absorption and emission, where their charge is associated with electron or positron emission or absorption, always causing nuclear transmutation. The Z boson is not involved in the absorption or emission of electrons and positrons.

The Z boson mediates the transfer of momentum, spin, and energy when neutrinos scatter elastically from matter, something that must happen without the production or absorption of new, charged particles. Such behaviour (which is almost as common as inelastic neutrino interactions) is seen in bubble chambers irradiated with neutrino beams. Whenever an electron simply "appears" in such a chamber as a new free particle suddenly moving with kinetic energy, and moves in the direction of the neutrinos as the apparent result of a new impulse, and this behavior happens more often when the neutrino beam is present, it is inferred to be a result of a neutrino interacting directly with the electron. Here, the neutrino simply strikes the electron and scatters away from it, transferring some of the neutrino's momentum to the electron. Since (i) neither neutrinos nor electrons are affected by the strong force, (ii) neutrinos are electrically neutral (therefore don't interact electromagnetically), and (iii) the incredibly small masses of these particles make any gravitational force between them negligible, such an interaction can only happen via the weak force. Since such an electron is not created from a nucleon, and is unchanged except for the new force impulse imparted by the neutrino, this weak force interaction between the neutrino and the electron must be mediated by a weak-force boson particle with no charge. Thus, this interaction requires a Z boson.


  • Basic properties 1
  • Weak nuclear force 2
    • W bosons 2.1
    • Z boson 2.2
  • Predicting the W and Z 3
  • Discovery 4
  • Decay 5
    • W bosons 5.1
    • Z bosons 5.2
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Basic properties

These bosons are among the heavyweights of the elementary particles. With masses of 80.4 GeV/c2 and 91.2 GeV/c2, respectively, the W and Z bosons are almost 100 times as large as the proton – heavier, even, than entire atoms of iron. The masses of these bosons are significant because they act as the force carriers of a quite short-range fundamental force: their high masses thus limit the range of the weak nuclear force. By way of contrast, the electromagnetic force has an infinite range, because its force carrier, the photon, has zero mass, and the same is supposed of the hypothetical graviton.

All three bosons have particle spin s = 1. The emission of a W+ or W boson either raises or lowers the electric charge of the emitting particle by one unit, and also alters the spin by one unit. At the same time, the emission or absorption of a W boson can change the type of the particle – for example changing a strange quark into an up quark. The neutral Z boson cannot change the electric charge of any particle, nor can it change any other of the so-called "charges" (such as strangeness, baryon number, charm, etc.). The emission or absorption of a Z boson can only change the spin, momentum, and energy of the other particle. (See also weak neutral current.)

Weak nuclear force

The Feynman diagram for beta decay of a neutron into a proton, electron, and electron antineutrino via an intermediate heavy W boson

The W and Z bosons are carrier particles that mediate the weak nuclear force, much as the photon is the carrier particle for the electromagnetic force.

W bosons

The W bosons are best known for their role in nuclear decay. Consider, for example, the beta decay of cobalt-60.

+ + e + ν

This reaction does not involve the whole cobalt-60 nucleus, but affects only one of its 33 neutrons. The neutron is converted into a proton while also emitting an electron (called a beta particle in this context) and an electron antineutrino:

n0p+ + e + ν

Again, the neutron is not an elementary particle but a composite of an up quark and two down quarks (udd). It is in fact one of the down quarks that interacts in beta decay, turning into an up quark to form a proton (uud). At the most fundamental level, then, the weak force changes the flavour of a single quark:

du + W

which is immediately followed by decay of the W itself:

We + ν

Z boson

The Z boson is its own antiparticle. Thus, all of its flavour quantum numbers and charges are zero. The exchange of a Z boson between particles, called a neutral current interaction, therefore leaves the interacting particles unaffected, except for a transfer of momentum. Z boson interactions involving neutrinos have distinctive signatures: They provide the only known mechanism for elastic scattering of neutrinos in matter; neutrinos are almost as likely to scatter elastically (via Z boson exchange) as inelastically (via W boson exchange). The first prediction of Z bosons was made by Brazilian physicist José Leite Lopes in 1958,[5] by devising an equation which showed the analogy of the weak nuclear interactions with electromagnetism. Steve Weinberg, Sheldon Glashow and Abdus Salam used later these results to develop the electroweak unification,[6] in 1973. Weak neutral currents via Z boson exchange were confirmed shortly thereafter in 1974, in a neutrino experiment in the Gargamelle bubble chamber at CERN.

Predicting the W and Z

A Feynman diagram showing the exchange of a pair of W bosons. This is one of the leading terms contributing to neutral Kaon oscillation.

Following the spectacular success of quantum electrodynamics in the 1950s, attempts were undertaken to formulate a similar theory of the weak nuclear force. This culminated around 1968 in a unified theory of electromagnetism and weak interactions by Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weinberg, and Abdus Salam, for which they shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics.[7] Their electroweak theory postulated not only the W bosons necessary to explain beta decay, but also a new Z boson that had never been observed.

The fact that the W and Z bosons have mass while photons are massless was a major obstacle in developing electroweak theory. These particles are accurately described by an SU(2) gauge theory, but the bosons in a gauge theory must be massless. As a case in point, the photon is massless because electromagnetism is described by a U(1) gauge theory. Some mechanism is required to break the SU(2) symmetry, giving mass to the W and Z in the process. One explanation, the Higgs mechanism, was forwarded by the 1964 PRL symmetry breaking papers. It predicts the existence of yet another new particle; the Higgs boson. Of the four components of a Goldstone boson created by the Higgs field, three are "eaten" by the W+, Z0, and W bosons to form their longitudinal components and the remainder appears as the spin 0 Higgs boson.

The combination of the SU(2) gauge theory of the weak interaction, the electromagnetic interaction, and the Higgs mechanism is known as the Glashow-Weinberg-Salam model. These days it is widely accepted as one of the pillars of the Standard Model of particle physics. As of 13 December 2011, intensive search for the Higgs boson carried out at CERN has indicated that if the particle is to be found, it seems likely to be found around 125 GeV. On 4 July 2012, the CMS and the ATLAS experimental collaborations at CERN announced the discovery of a new particle with a mass of 125.3 ± 0.6 GeV that appears consistent with a Higgs boson.


The Gargamelle bubble chamber, now exhibited at CERN

Unlike beta decay, the observation of neutral current interactions that involve particles other than neutrinos requires huge investments in particle accelerators and detectors, such as are available in only a few high-energy physics laboratories in the world (and then only after 1983). This is because Z-bosons behave in somewhat the same manner as photons, but do not become important until the energy of the interaction is comparable with the relatively huge mass of the Z boson.

The discovery of the W and Z bosons was considered a major success for CERN. First, in 1973, came the observation of neutral current interactions as predicted by electroweak theory. The huge Gargamelle bubble chamber photographed the tracks of a few electrons suddenly starting to move, seemingly of their own accord. This is interpreted as a neutrino interacting with the electron by the exchange of an unseen Z boson. The neutrino is otherwise undetectable, so the only observable effect is the momentum imparted to the electron by the interaction.

The discovery of the W and Z bosons themselves had to wait for the construction of a particle accelerator powerful enough to produce them. The first such machine that became available was the Super Proton Synchrotron, where unambiguous signals of W bosons were seen in January 1983 during a series of experiments made possible by Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer. The actual experiments were called UA1 (led by Rubbia) and UA2 (led by Pierre Darriulat),[8] and were the collaborative effort of many people. Van der Meer was the driving force on the accelerator end (stochastic cooling). UA1 and UA2 found the Z boson a few months later, in May 1983. Rubbia and van der Meer were promptly awarded the 1984 Nobel Prize in Physics, a most unusual step for the conservative Nobel Foundation.[9]

The W+, W, and Z0 bosons, together with the photon (γ), comprise the four gauge bosons of the electroweak interaction.


The W and Z bosons decay to fermionantifermion pairs but neither the W nor the Z bosons can decay into the higher-mass top quark. Neglecting phase space effects and higher order corrections, simple estimates of their branching fractions can be calculated from the coupling constants.

W bosons

W bosons can decay to a lepton and neutrino or to an up-type quark and a down-type quark. The decay width of the W boson to a quarkantiquark pair is proportional to the corresponding squared CKM matrix element and the number of quark colours, NC = 3. The decay widths for the W bosons are then proportional to:

Leptons Up quarks Charm quarks
1 ud 3|Vud|2 cd 3|Vcd|2
1 us 3|Vus|2 cs 3|Vcs|2
1 ub 3|Vub|2 cb 3|Vcb|2

Here, e+, μ+, τ+ denote the three flavours of leptons (more exactly, the positive charged antileptons). ν
, ν
, ν
denote the three flavours of neutrinos. The other particles, starting with u and d, all denote quarks and antiquarks (factor NC is applied). The various Vij denote the corresponding CKM matrix coefficients.

Unitarity of the CKM matrix implies that |Vud|2 + |Vus|2 + |Vub|2 =  |Vcd|2 + |Vcs|2 + |Vcb|2 = 1. Therefore the leptonic branching ratios of the W boson are approximately B(e+ν
) = B(μ+ν
) = B(τ+ν
) = 19. The hadronic branching ratio is dominated by the CKM-favored ud and cs final states. The sum of the hadronic branching ratios has been measured experimentally to be 67.60±0.27%, with B(l+νl) = 10.80±0.09%.[1]

Z bosons

Z bosons decay into a fermion and its antiparticle. As the Z-boson is a mixture of the pre-symmetry-breaking W0 and B0 bosons (see weak mixing angle), each vertex factor includes a factor T3 − Qsin2θW, where T3 is the third component of the weak isospin of the fermion, Q is the electric charge of the fermion (in units of the elementary charge), and θW is the weak mixing angle. Because the weak isospin is different for fermions of different chirality, either left-handed or right-handed, the coupling is different as well.

The relative strengths of each coupling can be estimated by considering that the decay rates include the square of these factors, and all possible diagrams (e.g. sum over quark families, and left and right contributions). This is just an estimate, as we are considering only tree-level diagrams in the Fermi theory.

Particles Effective charge Relative factor Branching ratio
Name Symbols L R Predicted for x = 0.23 Experimental measurements[10]
Neutrinos (all) ν
, ν
, ν
12 0 3(12)2 20.5% 20.00±0.06%
Charged leptons (all) e, μ, τ 3((−12 + x)2 + x2) 10.2% 10.097±0.003%
Electron e 12 + x x (−12 + x)2 + x2 3.4% 3.363±0.004%
Muon μ 12 + x x (−12 + x)2 + x2 3.4% 3.366±0.007%
Tau τ 12 + x x (−12 + x)2 + x2 3.4% 3.367±0.008%
Hadrons (all) 69.2% 69.91±0.06%
Down-type quarks d, s, b 12 + 13x 13x 3(−12 + 13x)2 + 3(13x)2 15.2% 15.6±0.4%
Up-type quarks u, c 1223x 23x 3(1223x)2 + 3(−23x)2 11.8% 11.6±0.6%

Here, L and R denote the left- and right-handed chiralities of the fermions respectively. (The right-handed neutrinos do not exist in the standard model. However, in some extensions beyond the standard model they do.) The notation x = sin2θW is used.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e J. Beringer; et al. (2012). "2012 Review of Particle Physics - Gauge and Higgs Bosons" (PDF). Physical Review D 86: 1.  
  2. ^ (PDF) 
  3. ^ Steven Weinberg, A Model of Leptons, Phys. Rev. Lett. 19, 1264–1266 (1967) – the electroweak unification paper.
  4. ^ Weinberg, Steven (1993). Dreams of a Final Theory: the search for the fundamental laws of nature. Vintage Press. p. 94.  
  5. ^ "Forty years of the first attempt at the electroweak unification and of the prediction of the weak neutral boson". 
  6. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Physics 1979".  
  7. ^ Nobel Prize in Physics for 1979 (see also Nobel Prize in Physics on WorldHeritage)
  8. ^ The UA2 Collaboration collection
  9. ^ 1984 Nobel Prize in physics
  10. ^ C. Amsler et al. (Particle Data Group), PL B667, 1 (2008) and 2009 partial update for the 2010 edition

External links

  • The Review of Particle Physics, the ultimate source of information on particle properties.
  • The W and Z particles: a personal recollection by Pierre Darriulat
  • When CERN saw the end of the alphabet by Daniel Denegri
  • W and Z particles at Hyperphysics
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