The first subatomic particle to be discovered was the electron, identified in 1897 by J. J. Thomson. After the nucleus of the atom was discovered in 1911 by Ernest Rutherford, the nucleus of ordinary hydrogen was recognized to be a single proton. In 1932 the neutron was discovered. An atom was seen to consist of a central nucleus—containing protons and, except for ordinary hydrogen, neutrons—surrounded by orbiting electrons. However, other elementary particles not found in ordinary atoms immediately began to appear.
In 1928 the relativistic quantum theory of P. A. M. Dirac hypothesized the existence of a positively charged electron, or positron, which is the antiparticle of the electron; it was first detected in 1932. Difficulties in explaining beta decay (see radioactivity) led to the prediction of the neutrino in 1930, and by 1934 the existence of the neutrino was firmly established in theory (although it was not actually detected until 1956). Another particle was also added to the list: the photon, which had been first suggested by Einstein in 1905 as part of his quantum theory of the photoelectric effect.
The next particles discovered were related to attempts to explain the strong interactions, or strong nuclear force, binding nucleons (protons and neutrons) together in an atomic nucleus. In 1935 Hideki Yukawa suggested that a meson (a charged particle with a mass intermediate between those of the electron and the proton) might be exchanged between nucleons. The meson emitted by one nucleon would be absorbed by another nucleon; this would produce a strong force between the nucleons, analogous to the force produced by the exchange of photons between charged particles interacting through the electromagnetic force. (It is now known, of course, that the strong force is mediated by the gluon.) The following year a particle of approximately the required mass (about 200 times that of the electron) was discovered and named the mu meson, or muon. However, its behavior did not conform to that of the theoretical particle. In 1947 the particle predicted by Yukawa was finally discovered and named the pi meson, or pion.
Both the muon and the pion were first observed in cosmic rays. Further studies of cosmic rays turned up more particles. By the 1950s these elementary particles were also being observed in the laboratory as a result of particle collisions produced by a particle accelerator.
One of the current frontiers in the study of elementary particles concerns the interface between that discipline and cosmology. The known quarks and leptons, for instance, are typically grouped in three families (where each family contains two quarks and two leptons); investigators have wondered whether additional families of elementary particles might be found. Recent work in cosmology pertaining to the evolution of the universe has suggested that there could be no more families than four, and the cosmological theory has been substantiated by experimental work at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (now SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory) and at CERN, which indicates that there are no families of elementary particles other than the three that are known today.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.