It used to be considered gospel that protons, unlike, say, neutrons, live forever, never decaying into smaller pieces. Then in the 1970’s, theorists realized that their candidates for a grand unified theory, merging all the forces except gravity, implied that protons must be unstable. Wait long enough and, very occasionally, one should break down. The trick is to catch it in the act. Sitting in underground laboratories, shielded from cosmic rays and other disturbances, experimenters have whiled away the years watching large tanks of water, waiting for a proton inside one of the atoms to give up the ghost. So far the fatality rate is zero, meaning that either protons are perfectly stable or their lifetime is enormous — an estimated billion trillion trillion years or more.