A lepton is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter. The best known of all leptons is the electron which governs nearly all of chemistry as it is found in atoms and is directly tied to all chemical properties. Two main classes of leptons exist: charged leptons (also known as the electron-like leptons), and neutral leptons (better known as neutrinos). Charged leptons can combine with other particles to form various composite particles such as atoms and positronium, while neutrinos rarely interact with anything, and are consequently rarely observed.
There are six types of leptons, known as flavours, forming three generations. The first generation is the electronic leptons, comprising the electron (e−) and electron neutrino (ν
e); the second is the muonic leptons, comprising the muon (μ−) and muon neutrino (ν
μ); and the third is the tauonic leptons, comprising the tau (τ−) and the tau neutrino (ν
τ). Electrons have the least mass of all the charged leptons. The heavier muons and taus will rapidly change into electrons through a process of particle decay: the transformation from a higher mass state to a lower mass state. Thus electrons are stable and the most common charged lepton in the universe, whereas muons and taus can only be produced in high energy collisions (such as those involving cosmic rays and those carried out in particle accelerators).
Leptons have various intrinsic properties, including electric charge, spin, and mass. Unlike quarks however, leptons are not subject to the strong interaction, but they are subject to the other three fundamental interactions: gravitation, electromagnetism (excluding neutrinos, which are electrically neutral), and the weak interaction. For every lepton flavor there is a corresponding type of antiparticle, known as antilepton, that differs from the lepton only in that some of its properties have equal magnitude but opposite sign. However, according to certain theories, neutrinos may be their own antiparticle, but it is not currently known whether this is the case or not.
The first charged lepton, the electron, was theorized in the mid-19th century by several scientists and was discovered in 1897 by J. J. Thomson. The next lepton to be observed was the muon, discovered by Carl D. Anderson in 1936, but it was erroneously classified as a meson at the time. After investigation, it was realized that the muon did not have the expected properties of a meson, but rather behaved like an electron, only with higher mass. It took until 1947 for the concept of "leptons" as a family of particle to be proposed. The first neutrino, the electron neutrino, was proposed by Wolfgang Pauli in 1930 to explain certain characteristics of beta decay. It was first observed in the Cowan–Reines neutrino experiment conducted by Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines in 1956. The muon neutrino was discovered in 1962 by Leon M. Lederman, Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger, and the tau discovered between 1974 and 1977 by Martin Lewis Perl and his colleagues from the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The tau neutrino remained elusive until July 2000, when the DONUT collaboration from Fermilab announced its discovery.
Leptons are an important part of the Standard Model. Electrons are one of the components of atoms, alongside protons and neutrons. Exotic atoms with muons and taus instead of electrons can also be synthesized, as well as lepton–antilepton particles such as positronium.