The Sciences

Nothin’ But Neutrons

Physicists report evidence of a new atom.

By Shannon PalusDec 19, 2016 6:00 AM
DSC-E0217_05.jpg
Physicists saw evidence that they’d produced an atom made up only of four neutrons, as illustrated here. | APS/Alan Stonebraker

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news
 

In February, physicists revealed evidence of an atom made only of neutrons — something many thought impossible. Because matter is classified by how many protons it has, this is “element zero,” jokes Tomohiro Uesaka, who led the work at the Radioactive Isotope Beam Factory in Japan.

Since the ’60s, scientists have debated whether such a strange atom might exist. To find out, physicists produced helium atoms (normally two protons and two neutrons strong) with four extra neutrons, and fired a beam of the atoms at a target of liquid helium. They measured what came flying out the other side and calculated that groups of four neutrons had clustered together for a fraction of a second.

Currently, Uesaka’s team is designing experiments to solidify these strange atoms’ existence and better understand what holds them together. The unknown forces that briefly bound them could explain a larger mystery of the universe: how neutron stars, the incredibly dense remains of certain large stars, can pack matter together so tightly.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!

Subscribe

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Join
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

 
Subscribe
To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2022 Kalmbach Media Co.