Science, Vol.371, No.6526, 260-+, 2021
Formation of alpha clusters in dilute neutron-rich matter
The surface of neutron-rich heavy nuclei, with a neutron skin created by excess neutrons, provides an important terrestrial model system to study dilute neutron-rich matter. By using quasi-free alpha cluster-knockout reactions, we obtained direct experimental evidence for the formation of alpha clusters at the surface of neutron-rich tin isotopes. The observed monotonous decrease of the reaction cross sections with increasing mass number, in excellent agreement with the theoretical prediction, implies a tight interplay between alpha-cluster formation and the neutron skin. This result, in turn, calls for a revision of the correlation between the neutron-skin thickness and the density dependence of the symmetry energy, which is essential for understanding neutron stars. Our result also provides a natural explanation for the origin of alpha particles in alpha decay.