Particle physics research

LANL’s Zhaowen Tang Receives Prestigious Department of Energy Early Career Research Award – Los Alamos Reporter

Zhaowen Tang/Photo courtesy LANL


Zhaowen Tang, of the Dynamic Imaging and X-Ray Group at Los Alamos National Laboratory, received a prestigious Early Career Research Program funding award from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The program, now in its 13th year, is designed to strengthen the country’s scientific workforce by providing support to outstanding researchers during the crucial early years of their careers, when many scientists perform their work the more formative.

“Supporting early career scientists is a priority for the Laboratory and is essential to continuing our world-class research,” said Laboratory Director Thom Mason. “I congratulate Zhaowen on this recognition and look forward to seeing the achievements he achieves throughout his career.”

Tang’s project, “Understanding the 10-second neutron lifetime gap,” was selected for funding by the Office of Nuclear Physics. His research will focus on neutron lifetimes at the one-second level, which is needed to improve predictions of elements generated by the Big Bang.

The standard model of particle physics describes how all known elementary particles behave under three of the four known forces of the universe: electromagnetic, weak and strong interactions. According to this theory, the free neutron decays 100% of the time into a proton, an electron and an antineutrino, with a lifetime of about 15 minutes.

In combination with other experiments, neutron lifetimes can provide constraints on many extensions of the Standard Model. There are mainly two different methods to measure neutron lifetime: experiments based on cold neutron beams and experiments using ultracold neutron bottles. The results of these two methods differ by 9.6 seconds, which corresponds to a chance of 1 in 3.5 million that the two results are compatible with each other.

Two possible explanations for this large discrepancy are: effects not taken into account in the interpretation of the data (systematic error) in one or both methods, or a new mode of neutron decay which so far produces particles unknown and undetected.

Tang’s new project aims to measure neutron lifetimes at the one-second level using an alternative method with completely different systematic errors compared to previous measurements. A result consistent with the bottle experiments would suggest that there are unaccounted systematic errors in the beam measurements, and a result consistent with the beam experiments can be interpreted as the discovery of a new hidden decay mode of the neutron.

“I’m extremely honored at the selection, and I’m excited to take this experience from the R&D phase to execution,” said Tang, who joined the Lab in 2014. “I feel very lucky to be working at Los Alamos, where scientists are empowered to pursue new ideas and are supported by numerous internal funding opportunities, allowing us to work on projects ranging from basic science to weapons physics.

Tang has a broad portfolio of research interests, including proton radiography, neutron decay, and dark matter research. He has been the principal investigator of several research projects funded by the Laboratory, the Seaborg Institute and scientific campaign projects. He has authored or co-authored over 30 papers with over 600 citations and has given numerous guest talks at several conferences and workshops.

Tang received his doctorate in physics from Indiana University and his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Texas-Austin.

About Early Career Research Program

The DOE Office of Science Early Career Research Program provides an annual funding opportunity for researchers at DOE universities and national laboratories. Established in 2010, this program supports the individual research programs of outstanding scientists early in their careers and stimulates research careers in disciplines supported by the DOE Office of Science.

See all 2022 Early Career Research Program Awards here.