Research Article

Measurement of the neutron lifetime using a magneto-gravitational trap and in situ detection

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Science  11 May 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6389, pp. 627-632
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan8895

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How long does a neutron live?

Unlike the proton, whose lifetime is longer than the age of the universe, a free neutron decays with a lifetime of about 15 minutes. Measuring the exact lifetime of neutrons is surprisingly tricky; putting them in a container and monitoring their decay can lead to errors because some neutrons will be lost owing to interactions with the container walls. To overcome this problem, Pattie et al. measured the lifetime in a trap where ultracold polarized neutrons were levitated by magnetic fields, precluding interactions with the trap walls (see the Perspective by Mumm). This more precise determination of the neutron lifetime will aid our understanding of how the first nuclei formed after the Big Bang.

Science, this issue p. 627; see also p. 605

Abstract

The precise value of the mean neutron lifetime, τn, plays an important role in nuclear and particle physics and cosmology. It is used to predict the ratio of protons to helium atoms in the primordial universe and to search for physics beyond the Standard Model of particle physics. We eliminated loss mechanisms present in previous trap experiments by levitating polarized ultracold neutrons above the surface of an asymmetric storage trap using a repulsive magnetic field gradient so that the stored neutrons do not interact with material trap walls. As a result of this approach and the use of an in situ neutron detector, the lifetime reported here [877.7 ± 0.7 (stat) +0.4/–0.2 (sys) seconds] does not require corrections larger than the quoted uncertainties.

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