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Reevaluation of 2005 measurement deepens mystery of neutron lifetime discrepancy

Posted December 9, 2013
Reevaluation of 2005 measurement deepens mystery of neutron lifetime discrepancy
Credit: APS/Joan Tycko
A team of researchers from a variety of institutions in the U.S. has reevaluated a measurement made of the lifetime of a neutron back in 2005 and in doing so has reduced the uncertainty of the accuracy of the measurement made—unfortunately it’s also led to an increase in the lifetime that was being measured. This, the researchers note in their paper published in Physical Review Letters, only increases the discrepancy between it and lifetime measurements made using another technique.

Neutrons normally exist inside the nucleus of an atom. If the nucleus is stable, the lifetime of the neutron is theoretically forever. Outside of a nucleus, however, things are very different. Due to interactions with other bits of matter, neutrons decay to other particles after about 15 minutes. Physicists and other scientists would like to nail down that decay to a very precise number—doing so would help in developing theories about what occurred just after the Big Bang, for example. The problem is, scientists currently have just two different ways to measure the decay and the answers the two return differ by so much that either the measuring techniques have to be improved, or the theories changed to reflect a different reality. Current research is leaning, quite naturally, towards the first approach.

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