Tulane Professor First to Observe Light-Emitting Neutron Decay

December 20, 2006

Kathryn Hobgood
Phone: 504-865-5210

A Tulane University physics professor was a leader in a recent experiment that made the first laboratory observation of radiative - or light-emitting - neutron decay. Neutron decay, which creates other subatomic particles, played a key role in the formation of matter in the universe during the first few minutes after the Big Bang.

Assistant Physics Professor Fred Wietfeldt's findings will be published in the Dec. 21, 2006 issue of the journal Nature.

"This 'radiative neutron decay' has been long predicted by theory but never before observed," Wietfeldt said. "To detect this very dim light is to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. This discovery is important because it gives scientists a new window for viewing and understanding the basic forces of nature."

Neutrons lurk deep inside most atoms and act as glue to hold the atomic nucleus together. Without neutrons the elements that make up everyday matter would not be stable. The experiment took place at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Center for Neutron Research in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Tulane postdoctoral scientist Brian Fisher and undergraduate student Isaac Kremsky in collaboration with NIST scientists and other university researchers took part in the experiment.

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