Outside the nucleus, neutrons are unstable and have a mean lifetime of 886 seconds (about 15 minutes), decaying by emitting an electron and antineutrino to become a proton. Neutrons in this unstable form are known as free neutrons. The same decay method (beta decay) occurs in some nuclei. Particles inside the nucleus are typically resonances between neutrons and protons, which transform into one another by the emission and absorption of pions. A neutron is classified as a baryon, and consists of two down quarks and one up quark. The neutron's antimatter equivalent is the antineutron.
The characteristic of neutrons which most differentiates them from other common subatomic particles is the fact that they are uncharged. This property of neutrons delayed their discovery, makes them very penetrating, makes it impossible to observe them directly, and makes them very important as agents in nuclear change.
Although atoms in their normal state are also uncharged, they are ten thousand times larger than a neutron and consist of a complex system of negatively charged electrons widely spaced around a positively charged nucleus. Charged particles (such as protons, electrons, or alpha particles) and electromagnetic radiations (such as gamma rays) lose energy in passing through matter. They exert electric forces which ionize atoms of the material through which they pass. The energy taken up in ionization equals the energy lost by the charged particle, which slows down, or by the gamma ray, which is absorbed. The neutron, however, is unaffected by such forces; it is affected only by the very short-range strong and weak nuclear forces which comes into play when the neutron comes very close indeed to an atomic nucleus. Consequently a free neutron goes on its way unchecked until it makes a "head-on" collision with an atomic nucleus. Since nuclei have a very small cross section, such collisions occur but rarely and the neutron travels a long way before colliding.
In the case of a collision of the elastic type, the ordinary laws of momentum apply as they do in the elastic collision of billiard balls. If the nucleus that is struck is heavy, it acquires relatively little speed, but if it is a proton, which is approximately equal in mass to the neutron, it is projected forward with a large fraction of the original speed of the neutron, which is itself correspondingly slowed. Secondary projectiles resulting from these collisions may be detected, for they are charged and produce ionization.
The uncharged nature of the neutron makes it not only difficult to detect but difficult to control. Charged particles can be accelerated, decelerated, or deflected by electric or magnetic fields which have about no effect on neutrons (there is a small effect of a magnetic field on the free neutron because of its magnetic moment). Furthermore, free neutrons (neutron radiation) can be obtained only from nuclear disintegrations; there is no natural supply. The only means we have of controlling free neutrons is to put nuclei in their way so that they will be slowed and deflected or absorbed by collisions. These effects are of great practical importance in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. The capture of free neutrons often results in neutron activation, inducing radioactivity. Free neutron beams are obtained from neutron sources by neutron transport.
One use of neutron emitters is the detection of light nuclei, particularly the hydrogen found in water molecules. When a fast neutron collides with a light nucleus, it loses a large fraction of its energy. By measuring the rate at which slow neutrons return to the probe after reflecting off of hydrogen nuclei, a neutron probe may determine the water content in soil.
In 1930 Walther Bothe and H. Becker in Germany found that if the very energetic alpha particles emitted from polonium fell on certain of the light elements, specifically beryllium, boron, or lithium, an unusually penetrating radiation was produced. At first this radiation was thought to be gamma radiation although it was more penetrating than any gamma rays known, and the details of experimental results were very difficult to interpret on this basis. The next important contribution was reported in 1932 by Irène Joliot-Curie and Frédéric Joliot in Paris. They showed that if this unknown radiation fell on paraffin or any other hydrogen-containing compound it ejected protons of very high energy. This was not in itself inconsistent with the assumed gamma ray nature of the new radiation, but detailed quantitative analysis of the data became increasingly difficult to reconcile with such an hypothesis. Finally (later in 1932) the physicist James Chadwick in England performed a series of experiments showing that the gamma ray hypothesis was untenable. He suggested that in fact the new radiation consisted of uncharged particles of approximately the mass of the proton, and he performed a series of experiments verifying his suggestion. Such uncharged particles were eventually called neutrons, apparently from the Latin root for neutral and the Greek ending -on (by imitation of electron and proton).
The existence of stable clusters of four neutrons, or tetraneutrons, has been hypothesised by a team led by Francisco-Miguel Marqués at the CNRS Laboratory for Nuclear Physics based on observations of the disintegration of beryllium-14 nuclei. This is particularly interesting, because current theory suggests that these clusters should not be stable, and therefore not exist.