PerspectiveNuclear Physics

Resolving the neutron lifetime puzzle

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Science  11 May 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6389, pp. 605-606
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat7140

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Free electrons and protons are stable, but outside atomic nuclei, free neutrons decay into a proton, electron, and antineutrino through the weak interaction, with a lifetime of ∼880 s (see the figure). The most precise measurements have stated uncertainties below 1 s (0.1%), but different techniques, although internally consistent, disagree by 4 standard deviations given the quoted uncertainties. Resolving this “neutron lifetime puzzle” has spawned much experimental effort as well as exotic theoretical mechanisms, thus far without a clear explanation. On page 627 of this issue, Pattie et al. (1) present the most precise measurement of the neutron lifetime to date. A new method of measuring trapped neutrons in situ allows a more detailed exploration of one of the more pernicious systematic effects in neutron traps, neutron phase-space evolution (the changing orbits of neutrons in the trap), than do previous methods. The precision achieved, combined with a very different set of systematic uncertainties, gives hope that experiments such as this one can help resolve the current situation with the neutron lifetime.