Cronin and Fitch detect a difference between matter and antimatter

27 July 1964

In 1964, James Cronin and Val Fitch at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the US did an experiment with particles called neutral K-mesons, or "kaons". The types of kaons they chose to study can be regarded to consist of one half ordinary matter and the other half antimatter. They started with two types of kaon that had seemingly identical masses but different lifetimes. Kaons of the long-lived type exist for 5.2 × 10-8 seconds before each decays into 3 pions. Kaons of the short-lived type exist for only 0.89 × 10-10 seconds before each decays into 2 pions.

Cronin and Fitch shot the two types of kaon down a 17-metre beamline and detected the resulting pion-decays at the other end.

Given the different lifetimes of the kaon types and the length of the beamline, you would expect only to see decays from the long-lived kaon type at the detector. Cronin and Fitch expected the short-lived kaon type to decay long before it reached the end of the beamline, and so its decay products would not be detected. In other words you would expect to detect only 3-pion decays and no 2-pion decays at all.

But in their experiment, Cronin and Fitch did detect 2-pion decays: 45 of them, out of a total of 22,700 decay events – a ratio of about 1 in 500. The result violated a fundamental principle of physics – the symmetry between matter and antimatter.

The pair announced their result in the paper "Evidence for the 2-pion Decay of the K Meson", published in the journal Physical Review Letters on 27 July 1964. They shared the 1980 Nobel prize in physics "for the discovery of violations of fundamental symmetry principles in the decay of neutral K-mesons."

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