I'm trying to understand how people actually measure decay constants that are discussed in meson decays. As a concrete example lets consider the pion decay constant. The amplitude for $\pi ^-$ decay is given by, \begin{equation} \big\langle 0 | T \exp \big[ i \int \,d^4x {\cal H} \big] | \pi ^- ( p _\pi ) \big\rangle \end{equation} To lowest order this is given by, \begin{equation} i \int \,d^4x \left\langle 0 | T W _\mu J ^\mu | \pi ^- ( p _\pi ) \right\rangle \end{equation} If we square this quantity and integrate over phase space then we will get the decay rate.

On the other hand, the pion decay constant is defined through, \begin{equation} \left\langle 0 | J ^\mu | \pi ^- \right\rangle = - i f _\pi p _\pi ^\mu \end{equation} This is clearly related to the above, but it seems to me there are a couple of subtleties. In particular,

  1. How do we get rid of the time-ordering symbol?
  2. Since we don't have a value for $ W _\mu $ how can we go ahead and extract $f _\pi $ ?
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This question is also cross-posted on a different website here, physicsoverflow.org/17803/… $\endgroup$
    – JeffDror
    Jun 2, 2014 at 18:37
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Is it really cross-posting when it's on a website that is completely unrelated to this one? $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Jun 2, 2014 at 18:50
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Not sure. I could just omit adding this comment but I feel like its better for people to see if it by chance gets answered on the other website. $\endgroup$
    – JeffDror
    Jun 2, 2014 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ Are you asking about measuring or calculating? Your title says one thing, your actual question text implies another. $\endgroup$
    – BMS
    Jun 2, 2014 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ I am talking about measuring. Calculating it is a much more difficult problem since then you need the tools of non-perturbative QCD. I give the theoretical background because (as I understand it) the decay constants are defined theoretically and I'm trying to understand carefully how that relates to an experiment. $\endgroup$
    – JeffDror
    Jun 2, 2014 at 20:26

2 Answers 2


To toot my own horn a little1 may I suggest the series of papers published by the $f_\pi$ collaboration from Hall C at Jefferson Lab:

This study achieved access to the decay constant by separating the structure functions for highly forward scattering to examine the pion-mass pole in the t-channel (where the decay constant is linearly present in the dominate term). The result is then used to tune the best available theoretical calculations by varying the input $f_\pi$ to get a good match to the experimental results.

You might also find some useful information about the experimental arrangments in the original paper

The very long period between the taking of the data and the extraction of the decay constant should serve as a channel marker for the considerable difficulty of work in the transition energy regime.

1 The real tooting of horms belongs to my collaborators as I was only a beginning grad student and concentrated on one systematic correction, not the whole project.

  • $\begingroup$ I saw this question and thought "JLab." I think you and I haven't met, but we're a handshake apart. $\endgroup$
    – rob
    Jun 9, 2014 at 17:11
  • How can we measure meson decay constants?

I am not an experimental physicst, but I think that the best way to obtain the decay constant is to study processes like $\pi^+\to \mu^+ \nu$ and extract them from the branching ratio:

$$\rm{Br}(\pi^+\to \mu^+\nu)=\dfrac{G_F^2 m_{\pi^+} m_\mu^2}{8 \pi}\left(1-\dfrac{m_\mu^2}{m_{\pi^+}^2} \right)^2 f_{\pi^+}^2 |V_{ud}|^2 \tau_{\pi^+} ,$$ which is measured nowadays with great precision.

@dmckee answer's suggests that we can also extract the decay constant from the pion form factor, but this method seems less precise, because it is more difficult to measure form factors than decay constants (but maybe I'm wrong...). If you take a look at PDG, you'll see that the process $\pi^+\to \mu^+\nu$ is measured with an incredible precision.

One last comment about decay constants: actually, these quantities can be computed for pions using Lattice QCD methods and the theoretical error bars are comparable to the experimental ones! You can even find very precise computations for more exotic mesons, like $D$, $B$ and $B_s$.

  • For your theoretical question:

It depends on the process you are considering! For example, if you have $\pi^+\to \mu^+\nu$, then you must take a second order term. In this term, you need a current $J^\mu_{q}$ related to the annihilation $u \bar{d}\to W^+$ and a leptonic current $J^\mu_\ell$ related to the creation $W^+\to\mu^+\nu$. Then, the time ordered product will only apply to the $W^+W^-$ term and it will give you simply the $W^+$ boson propagator.

From my experience, I would suggest you to integrate-out the vector bosons, because the corrections to the fermi theory are negligible. In this case, you can write an effective Hamiltonian: $$\mathcal{H}_{\text{eff}}=-\sqrt{2} G_F V_{ub} [\overline{u}\gamma_\mu (1-\gamma_5)d][\bar{\mu}_L \gamma^\mu {\nu_\mu}_L] +\text{h.c.}, $$ and it is much simpler to read the amplitude and to relate it with the decay constant, because the hadronic part factorizes:

$$\mathcal{A}=-i\langle \mu^+,\nu | {H}_{\text{eff}} |\pi^+\rangle =i\sqrt{2} G_F V_{ub} \langle 0 |\overline{u}\gamma_\mu \gamma^5 d|\pi^+\rangle\cdot \bar{u}(p_\nu)[\gamma^\mu(1-\gamma_5)/2 ]v(p_\mu),$$

where $$\langle 0 |\overline{u}\gamma_\mu \gamma^5 d|\pi^+\rangle=-i p_\mu f_{\pi^+}.$$

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your response. That helps a lot. I think what really confused me was the second part. Also how come $ \left\langle 0 \right| \bar{u} \gamma _\mu d \left| \pi ^+ \right\rangle $ denotes the amplitude of a pion turning into a $W$ boson (instead of a pion decaying into the vacuum)? Is it just notation or is there physical significance to it? $\endgroup$
    – JeffDror
    Jun 3, 2014 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ You should see $\langle 0 |\overline{u}\gamma_\mu d|\pi^+\rangle$ as the amplitude to a pion annihilate into the vacuum of QCD through a vector current. The boson $W$ is just a mediator of the $V-A$ current. This decay constant is important when you study the decay of the pion into leptons or photons, because the hadronic part factorizes from the rest, as I showed with the example $\pi^+\to\mu^+ \nu$, where the leptonic operators acted on the vacuum state to give the spinors $\bar{u}$ and $v$. $\endgroup$ Jun 3, 2014 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ I made a slight mistake in my answer and comments: the amplitude should be $\langle 0 |\bar{u}\gamma_\mu\gamma^5 d|\pi^+\rangle$ with an axial current. The vector part of the $W$ current vanishes, because the pion is a pseudoscalar particle. Sorry about that! $\endgroup$ Jun 3, 2014 at 18:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.