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When physicists strip neutrons from atomic nuclei, put them in a bottle, then count how many remain there after some time, they infer that neutrons radioactively decay in 14 minutes and 39 seconds, on average. But when other physicists generate beams of neutrons and tally the emerging protons — the particles that free neutrons decay into — they peg the average neutron lifetime at around 14 minutes and 48 seconds.

The discrepancy between the “bottle” and “beam” measurements has persisted since both methods of gauging the neutron’s longevity began yielding results in the 1990s. At first, all the measurements were so imprecise that nobody worried. Gradually, though, both methods have improved, and still they disagree. Now, researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have made the most precise bottle measurement of the neutron lifetime yet, using a new type of bottle that eliminates possible sources of error in earlier designs. The result, which will soon appear in the journal Science, reinforces the discrepancy with beam experiments and increases the chance that it reflects new physics rather than mere experimental error.

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Category: Science