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 α cluster- knockout reactions, we obtained direct experimental evidence for the formation of α 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 α-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 α particles in α decay.
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