The proton is the lightest baryon and its stability is a measure of baryon number conservation. The proton's lifetime thus puts strong constraints on speculative theories which try to extend the Standard Model of particle physics. The neutron decays into a proton through the weak decay. The two are members of an isospin I=1/2 doublet.
With spin and parity 1/2+, charge +1, and rest mass of 938 MeV, the proton is the nucleus of a hydrogen atom (). It has a magnetic moment of 2.79 nuclear magnetons. The electric dipole moment is consistent with zero; the bound on it is that it is less than 0.54×10-23 e-cm.
In some speculative grand unified theories it may decay. The half-life for this decay has been limited to be greater than 2.1×1029 years. The charge radius is measured mainly through elastic electron-proton scattering and is . For specific decay modes, into antilepton or lepton and a meson, the bound is often better than 10 years. The proton is therefore taken to be a stable particle, and baryon number is assumed to be conserved.
The neutron has no charge, has spin and parity of 1/2+, and rest mass of . The most precise measurements of its decay lifetime are mainly from traps of various kinds and in beams. The lifetime of a free neutron outside the nucleus is (about 15 minutes). It decays weakly through the process
Its magnetic moment is −1.91 nuclear magnetons. Both time reversal and parity invariance of the strong interactions implies that the neutron's electric dipole moment must be zero; the current observational bound is that it is less than . The mean-square charge radius related to the scattering length measured in low energy electron-neutron scattering for the neutron is .
Violation of baryon number conservation may give rise to oscillations between the neutron and antineutron, through processes which change B by two units. Using free neutrons from nuclear reactors, as well as neutrons bound inside nuclei, the mean time for these transitions is found to be greater than . The much poorer bound, as compared to protons, is related to the difficulty of the observations.
A limit on electric charge non-conservation comes from the observed lack of the decay
The observations which limit the branching fraction of the neutron in this decay channel to less than are all done looking for appropriate decays of nuclei (A→A and Z→Z+1).
The article on isospin provides an explicit expression for the nucleon wave functions in terms of the quark flavour eigenstates.
Although it is known that the nucleon is made from three quarks, as of 2006, it is not known how to solve the equations of motion for quantum chromodynamics. Thus, the study of the low-energy properties of the nucleon are performed by means of models. The only first-principles approach available is to attempt to solve the equations of QCD numerically, using lattice QCD. This requires complicated algorithms and very powerful supercomputers. However, several analytic models also exist:
The Skyrmion models the nucleon as a topological soliton in a non-linear SU(2) pion field. The topological stability of the Skyrmion is interpreted as the conservation of baryon number, that is, the non-decay of the nucleon. The local topological winding number density is identified with the local baryon number density of the nucleon. With the pion isospin vector field oriented in the shape of a hedgehog, the model is readily solvable, and is thus sometimes called the hedgehog model. The hedgehog model is able to predict low-energy parameters, such as the nucleon mass, radius and axial coupling constant, to approximately 30% of experimental values.
The MIT bag model confines three non-interacting quarks to a spherical cavity, with the boundary condition that the quark vector current vanish on the boundary. The non-interacting treatment of the quarks is justified by appealing to the idea of asymptotic freedom, whereas the hard boundary condition is justified by quark confinement. Mathematically, the model vaguely resembles that of a radar cavity, with solutions to the Dirac equation standing in for solutions to the Maxwell equations and the vanishing vector current boundary condition standing for the conducting metal walls of the radar cavity. If the radius of the bag is set to the radius of the nucleon, the bag model predicts a nucleon mass that is within 30% of the actual mass. An important failure of the basic bag model is its failure to provide a pion-mediated interaction.
The chiral bag model merges the MIT bag model and the Skyrmion model. In this model, a hole is punched out of the middle of the Skyrmion, and replaced with a bag model. The boundary condition is provided by the requirement of continuity of the axial vector current across the bag boundary. Very curiously, the missing part of the topological winding number (the baryon number) of the hole punched into the Skyrmion is exactly made up by the non-zero vacuum expectation value (or spectral asymmetry) of the quark fields inside the bag. As of 2006, this remarkable trade-off between topology and the spectrum of an operator does not have any grounding or explanation in the mathematical theory of Hilbert spaces and their relationship to geometry. Several other properties of the chiral bag are notable: it provides a better fit to the low energy nucleon properties, to within 5-10%, and these are almost completely independent of the chiral bag radius (as long as the radius is less than the nucleon radius). This independence of radius is referred to as the Cheshire Cat principle, after the fading to a smile of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat. It is expected that a first-principles solution of the equations of QCD will demonstrate a similar duality of quark-pion descriptions.