parity or space parity, in physics, quantity that refers to the relationship between an object or process and the image that it can produce in a mirror. For example, any right-handed object will produce a mirror-image counterpart that is identical to it in every way except that the mirror image is left-handed. A moving particle that spins in a clockwise manner, as would a right-handed screw advancing through space, will possess a mirror-image particle that is identical to it in every way except that it spins counterclockwise, as would a left-handed screw advancing through space. The law of conservation of parity implies that every real object or process has a mirror image that can also exist and that obeys the same physical laws. Although this concept has little significance in classical physics, it is of great importance in atomic and nuclear physics. From this law scientists inferred that all elementary particles and their interactions possessed mirror image counterparts that also exist. However, in 1956 T. D. Lee and C. N. Yang published a paper in which they argued that parity was not conserved in weak interactions. Their conjecture was verified the same year by C. S. Wu and coworkers at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards and other institutions in an experiment involving beta decay (see radioactivity). Parity is still conserved in the strong nuclear interactions and in the electromagnetic interactions. Formally, parity, P, is a quantity that expresses the behavior of the wave function of any system of particles when the spatial coordinates x, y, z, of the wave function are reflected through the origin to - x, - y, - z (see quantum theory). This mathematical operation is called the parity, or space-inversion, operation. See also symmetry.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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