II. Neutron Decay into

a Stable Hydrogen Atom

[first posted: 1.26.17/most recent edits & additions: 2.28.17]

Preamble: this conjecture - about the possible stable decay of the neutron and the change in charge, mass and volume distribution brought about with such decay - relates to conjecture in Topic VII: Isotopes, Nuclear Spin & Chirality and to that of Topic VI: Molecular Precession, Gravitation, and Circadian Rhythms. The role that a possible reverse reaction may have when linked to decay sequences of isotopes positioned along the H-bond nucleotide interface of DNA is conjectured about in Topic VIII: Alternative Structures to Watson-Crick in Bound Chromosomal DNA?

Hypothesis: A prediction from the standard model of particle physics is that the neutron can decay into a stable hydrogen atom (accompanied by the release of a neutrino). While such decay has a small branching ratio of 10^-6, there are many radioactive decay events occurring in each of our 30-trillion cells that expel neutrons. Free neutrons have a mean lifetime of just under 15 minutes before their subsequent decay into either the more common {proton + electron + antineutrino} or the stable hydrogen event described. Such an event not only introduces a localized change in charge distribution - allowing both positive and negative ions to occupy a space that was previously neutral - but the event also produces a localized physical strain since the volume occupied by the hydrogen atom is roughly 30,000 larger than that of the neutron. With such an event, there is also a change in the local inertial distribution and oscillation frequency of the cytosol. No specific conclusions are drawn here, but it is suggested that when such decay events occur within critical structures such as DNA, the disruption may lead to local cell malfunction. Conjecture may also be extended to modeling the biological benefits gained by controlling the possible reverse reaction.

This is an exciting decay event to look for. The cell is full of molecules saturated with protons and neutrons, all immersed in a field full of hydrogen atoms that will cling to just about any negative molecule that will take them. So now consider the neutron, a particle that is typically bound into the nucleus with other nucleons. When so grouped, the neutron is almost infinitely stable. Yet once the neutron is set free, it typically decays after about 15 minutes into a proton, an electron, and an anti-neutrino. . This is all part of the standard model. But, what is also hypothesized under the standard model is the possible decay of the neutron into a stable hydrogen atom - not your average decay event! For this to occur, both the energy and angular momentum of the released proton and anti-neutrino have to be balanced with that of the electron and both fine-tuned such that they can deliver a local stable proton-electron orbital configuration. Difficult as this event may be, we go now to the UCN Physics Lab in Munchen, Germany…

“For many years neutron decay has been investigated as a possible pathway to the exploration of new physics. One such example is the bound beta-decay (BoB) of the neutron into a hydrogen atom and an anti-neutrino. This two-body decay mode offers a very elegant method to study neutrino helicities…. However, this rare decay has not yet been observed so far owing to the challenges of measuring a decay involving only electrically neutral particles with an estimated branching ratio of only 10-6 of the three-body decay mode.”

“Currently the BoB experiment is in the design and planning phase.”


[Visit: http://www.e18.ph.tum.de/en/research/the-two-body-decay-of-the-neutron-bob/]
or, [http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1875389213006974]

Several other groups are looking for this decay event, but since it has a branching ratio of less than one in a million, it may take several decades before such decay is detected (remember, it took three decades to find the neutrino). However, it can be argued that we each have our own little experiment lab in full swing within each of the 30 trillion cells in our body - with each cell containing over a trillion molecules. If we were only counting protein molecules, we’d find over 200 million in every cell. ‘One-in-a-million’ type events have the potential to occur in our bodies quite frequently. If even a small fraction of these molecules contain isotopes with a neutron decay mode - such as 17N that decays after about 4 seconds to 16O via neutron emission - then a hydrogen atom has the potential to be delivered into a region where none existed before. Such a decay event has many ramifications for both chemistry and physics, but it would be doubly significant for cell biology because so much activity within the cell depends on hydrogen. The H-atom created by such a decay would be much more easily divided into constituent ions and interact electromagnetically with surrounding molecules. This has the potential to alter local bonding structure anywhere in the cell. If the decay event occurs in an extra neutron that has migrated to the DNA core and the cell has to deal with the rhythms of N-2H---O instead of N-1H---O, then this would be significant (see to Topic VIII).

But there is an even more simple ramification of this decay event: volume change. A neutron is considered compact with a radius of roughly 1.6 x 10^-15 meters, while a hydrogen atom is 30,000 times as large (radius ~ 0.5 x 10^-10 m). If the neutron were to decay in free space this is not present a problem. But in a contained environment like the cell, any new volume created must come at the expense of the surrounding environment; it has to come from somewhere. We can find a useful analogy here with popcorn. We are all familiar with how kernals of popcorn 'pop' to ~ 10 times their original size when heated, and how a bag of popcorn placed in a microwave puffs up. But, if we were to imagine that a single kernal of popcorn were to expand by a factor of 30,000, then it would * pop * to be as large as a football stadium!

If such stable decay events were found to occur...how would the cell manage such a volume change? What neighboring molecules would need to be compressed to accommodate the event? And what would the explosion of volume do to the sedimentation coefficient of any protein hosting the neutron that does decay (see Topic V)? What is equally interesting is a hypothesized reverse event – one where an electron, initially bound to a proton as hydrogen, is shepherded by the neutrino to condense into a neutron (a type of electron capture). This would be a reverse, or anti-'pop', with completely opposite volume considerations.

Might biological organisms have evolved with sufficient control over their molecular environment to facilitate or control the neutron decay event? The skill would certainly have been found practical. If we are to consider the possibility that the chaperone for such an event is a particular molecule or molecular arrangement, might we not begin at the one place where there exists the requisite near-perfect balance between atom and environment - that is, might we not begin our conjecture right along the symmetrical H-bond core of the DNA molecule?

These are rhetorical questions. Perhaps the physics lab in Muchen or one elsewhere will detect the hypothesized event and provide us with more detailed information. We can wait the decade for that event to be detected, but might we be justified in beginning to speculate about the event's ramifications now

Such extended conjecture might begin with the possibility that - at least at some locations and under some conditions - our cell has explored a mechanism to control the particular state of the <neutron|Hydrogen> structure? Inanimate objects certainly do not have this ability. However, it can be observed that electron 'K-capture' is at least partially dependent on the electron structure of the atom, which, of course, is also partially affected by that atom's bonding configuration with the surrounding molecules. It is not difficult to balance the energy needed for the transition if we are permitted to maniplate the fine-scale energy flips associated with nuclear spin and molecular vibrations in an extended molecular environment. In the cell, molecules collide with a typical frequency of ~ 10^10 per second, thus even small but coordinated shifts in vibrational patterns can free up enough potentially energy to be useful to self-organizing tendencies of biological structures. Below are two excerpts from a larger discussion by Dr. Christopher Baird, physicist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.* The first quote (Dr. Baird's conclusion) reminds us that the change in half-life brought about by manipulating electron structure is likely too small to be significant (and thus, the conjecture noted here - while perhaps valid in principle - is not likely to be a useful mechanism developed by the cell.) However, because the purpose of this site is to open up topics for conjecture, the second quote might provide encouragement for some ambitious bio-physics student to explore the possibility further - or to demonstrate why the notion should be excluded from any future modeling.

  • "The half-life of radioactive decay can also be altered by changing the state of the electrons surrounding the nucleus. In a type of radioactive decay called "electron capture", the nucleus absorbs one of the atom's electrons and combines it with a proton to make a neutron and a neutrino. The more the wavefunctions of the atom's electrons overlap with the nucleus, the more able the nucleus is to capture an electron. Therefore, the half-life of an electron-capture radioactive decay mode depends slightly on what state the atom's electrons are in. By exciting or deforming the atom's electrons into states that overlap less with the nucleus, the half-life can be reduced. Since the chemical bonding between atoms involves the deformation of atomic electron wavefunctions, the radioactive half-life of an atom can depend on how it is bonded to other atoms. Simply by changing the neighboring atoms that are bonded to a radioactive isotope, we can change its half-life."

*[The full discussion can be found at:
http://sciencequestionswithsurprisinganswers.org/2015/04/27/can-the-decay-half-life-of-a-radioactive-material-be-changed/]