The strange case of solar flares and radioactive elements
August 24, 2010 9:29 PM   Subscribe

Solar flares may be affecting radioactive decay rates
posted by Confess, Fletch (57 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

Creationists are going to love this.
posted by brundlefly at 9:43 PM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think Fletch meant that the solar flares are effecting new, slower decay rates.
posted by clockzero at 9:44 PM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

In other news, solar flares may not be affecting radioactive decay rates. (Via informative thread at HN.)
posted by knave at 9:47 PM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Creationists are going to love this.

Maybe.. Although it would seem that it doesn't change the large scale decay rate of carbon isotopes. It just shows that they fluctuate seasonally. Right?
posted by hanoixan at 9:49 PM on August 24, 2010

Seasonal fluctuation alone would be monumentally difficult to explain though.
posted by Rumple at 9:51 PM on August 24, 2010

Creationists are going to love this.

I hate that that was also my first thought.

posted by knave at 9:51 PM on August 24, 2010

brundlefly: "Creationists are going to love this."

The Sun of God?
posted by bwg at 9:52 PM on August 24, 2010 [8 favorites]

I thought the Sun's core was believed to rotate faster than the surface, though I don't think it's been pinned down by helioseismology yet.
posted by lukemeister at 9:53 PM on August 24, 2010

Changes in the sunspot cycle do have a noticeable, short-term effect on the rate of C-14 production inasmuch as sunspots are associated with solar flares, which produce magnetic storms on Earth, and the condition of the earth's magnetic field does affect the number of cosmic rays reaching the earth's upper atmosphere. (Carbon-14 is produced by energetic collisions between cosmic rays and molecules of nitrogen in the upper atmosphere.)

Given that, I suspect that this might turn out to be a problem with their methodology- perhaps the rates of decay are not actually affected, but without any really detailed information it's pretty hard to say.
posted by signalnine at 9:57 PM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Sun of God?

I'm not Sold on that.
posted by lukemeister at 10:09 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Between 60 years of dendrochronological controls on on the one hand and software that can already handle regional reservoir effects (OxCal, represent!) on the other – I may only be speaking for a subset of archaeologists, but – I for one foresee no changes in my work or results from this news. Let the creationists misrepresent science as they will.
posted by barnacles at 10:13 PM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wow, an amazing story with unbelievably deep implications.

For one, the changes happened in the middle of the night in one lab, implying that the effect is due to neutrinos, which are able to pass through the earth's core without getting their hair mussed (the old maxim I used to hear was '50 light years of lead for a 50% chance of being absorbed').

For another, I hope someone associated with this project has had the foresight to patent a solar flare detector before publishing this, because the change in decay rate took place a day and a half before the solar flare, which again implies neutrinos, because everything else that happens in the sun's interior, including photon emission, takes a long time to make it to the surface. Neutrinos zip through at near the speed of light.

That alone could save many billions of dollars of satellites and sensitive electronics on Earth in the event of a solar flare such as the one we experienced in the 1800s that knocked out telegraph lines.
posted by jamjam at 10:30 PM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

lukemeister: "The Sun of God?

I'm not Sold on that.

Well, yours is not a RAre point of view.
posted by bwg at 10:31 PM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

(Scientists use long strings of random numbers for a variety of calculations, but they are difficult to produce, since the process used to produce the numbers has an influence on the outcome.)

No fair! They changed the result by ... creating it in the first place?
posted by m0nm0n at 10:32 PM on August 24, 2010

The solar storm of 1859.
posted by jamjam at 10:36 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hail to the sun god! He sure is a fun god! Hail! Hail! Hail! Ra! Ra! Ra!
posted by homunculus at 11:02 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

hanoixan: "Maybe.. Although it would seem that it doesn't change the large scale decay rate of carbon isotopes. It just shows that they fluctuate seasonally. Right?"

Yeah, but they'll be very happy to ignore that distinction when it suits them. This topic will be a quote-mining mother lode.
posted by brundlefly at 11:29 PM on August 24, 2010

What we're suggesting is that something that doesn't really interact with anything is changing something that can't be changed.

So it's like a shut-in trying to persuade a Republican?
posted by Sys Rq at 11:33 PM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Well, I throw my hands up.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:38 PM on August 24, 2010

So maybe using random numbers generated by radioactive decay wasn't the best idea?
posted by parudox at 11:53 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

So (forgive my ignorance, but:) don't these solar events happen with some frequency? I mean, in geologic time they are an expected occurrence every now and then, right? So in the long run, wouldn't this net out?

Obviously if I was correct this wouldn't be Big Deal News, but it makes sense to me..
posted by paisley henosis at 12:13 AM on August 25, 2010

paisley - I don't think we can know if this effect nets out or not. I think that would require correlated and quantified histories of solar activity and radioactive decay, and I'd be surprised if those things exist. thus the gleeful creationists alluded to earlier. the finding could be seen to undermine the idea of uniformitarianism.
posted by Dr. Boom at 12:47 AM on August 25, 2010

Here is one of the papers: Evidence for Correlations Between Nuclear Decay Rates and Earth-Sun Distance

I can't believe I haven't heard about this before, this is really neat. From the abstract: "Some implications of these results are also discussed, including the suggestion that discrepancies in published half-life determinations for these and other nuclides may be attributable in part to ... seasonal variations in fundamental constants"
posted by pseudonick at 1:01 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

That last paper was 2 years old, here is a paper from last month: Evidence for Solar Influences on Nuclear Decay Rates

This is all fascinating. I've got the Cl-36 and the liquid scintillation spectrometer, if anyone has some Si-32 we can verify this thing.
posted by pseudonick at 1:19 AM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

"environmental effects on decay rates are crank science, often quoted by creationists in their attempts to discredit evolutionary and geological time scales"
posted by KMH at 1:30 AM on August 25, 2010

If the effect occurs all across the Earth it's a bit misleading to refer to it as occurring in "summer" and "winter", which are hemispheric. If it really does occur in summer and winter, ie decay is faster on one hemisphere, slower on the other, that's very interesting.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:42 AM on August 25, 2010

We'll use my largest scales!
posted by maxwelton at 1:58 AM on August 25, 2010

Here is a paper that describes the power history of the radioisotope generator on the Cassini spacecraft as it moves further from the sun

It does not show the variation of Jenkins et al and is cited in knave's link to a paper critical of Jenkins et al above. A new paper from a couple months ago by Sturrock et al (Jenkins as coauthor) Power Spectrum Analysis of BNL Decay-Rate Data defends the periodicity and now has a a bunch of other institutions involved too. Notably they conclude: "some nuclear decay rates are influenced by solar neutrinos," so far their critics have not tested the same nuclides as Jenkins and his collaborators as far as I can tell.
posted by pseudonick at 2:16 AM on August 25, 2010

posted by seanyboy at 2:38 AM on August 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

So, increased solar activity DECREASES radioactivity here on earth (in some isotopes)

That's bizarre. Assuming this gets confirmed by experiment and more data, this could have a dramatic effect on physics - like the time where they went to measure how quickly the universe was decelerating in its expansion, and found that it was actually accelerating.

The really great scientific discoveries aren't usually accompanied by the shout of "Eureka" but by the murmur of "That's funny."
posted by BigCalm at 2:49 AM on August 25, 2010 [6 favorites]

It doesn't make sense. How can a solar flare affect decay rates if the source of the decay rate change is at the core of the Sun, and not the surface?
Even if you convinced me something funny is going on with Earth-Sun distances or whatever and seasonal variations, I'd not buy that solar flare result as additional evidence for it.
posted by edd at 3:57 AM on August 25, 2010

As the researchers pored through published data on specific isotopes, they found disagreement in the measured decay rates – odd for supposed physical constants.

Did someone who had EVER performed an experiment write this sentence? If all the rates agreed perfectly that would be the odd part.

If by odd you mean fraudulent.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:10 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love this because it give me a chance to hypothesise crazy scenarios that anyone with more than an O Level in physics and a passing interest in science fiction could prove to be completely false.

1) I'm guessing that the decay rate is affected by the amount of local dark matter. Heavy solar activity destroys dark matter, creating a low-dark-matter bubble in space. If the earth passes through this bubble, then decay rates decrease.

2) The sun creates some kind of particle that affects the decay rate & solar activity reduces the amount of these particles produced. Because the particles produced have only a local impact, any decaying particles that are a distance away from the sun will decay slower. This is why voyager, etc report that time is slower. It's not time dilation from them going faster, it's just that the atomic clocks are running slower.
posted by seanyboy at 4:14 AM on August 25, 2010

It's the kotskrodandiel emanations from the 12 galaxies.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:26 AM on August 25, 2010

Yay science. It's a predictive, testable hypothesis (future changes in decay rates will precede solar flares) which is hard to account for with any confounding story. I'm happy to wait. Really, they messed up on one thing though: no mention of the Oklo reactor. To quote this paper
No discussion of the time-variation of fundamental con-
stants would be complete without a mention of the Oklo
natural fission reactor.
Others have looked at Cassini's RTG, but there are probably other RTGs which one could check for a power spike preceding the solar flare.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:40 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

The "may not be" paper linked by knave is cited in the new Sturrock paper, which says
Norman et al. [7] have reexamined data from several studies of nuclear decay rates and found no evidence for a correlation with Sun-Earth distance. However, our collaboration has recently re-analyzed Norman’s data, which Norman and his collaborators generously provided, and we have detected an annual periodicity with a small amplitude but the same phase as that found in the BNL and PTB datasets.
It seems like there ought to be some way to investigate the neutrons-dampen-radioactive-decay hypothesis in the lab. For instance, measure the decay rate in a sample of a first material in the presence or absence of a well-shielded second sample which is undergoing radioactive decays that produce neutrons. The neutrons wouldn't be absorbed by shielding, so they would travel through the first sample, affecting its decay process in the same way as solar neutrinos (if at all).

Finally, we do know that physical processes change the rate of radioactive decay--neutrons. If this wasn't true, nuclear power plants and bombs wouldn't work. Of course, we understand that neutrons do this by actually interacting with atomic nuclei, and more neutrons create more decays. If the yearly effect in the Sturrock paper is real, it shows that greater numbers of neutrinos decrease the rate of radioactive decay (or at least the two occur together), and we don't have any plausible way for neutrinos to interact with normal matter like this.

(Of course, in reading up a bit on this I was reminded that in the 30s we didn't know that there were neutrons in the atomic nucleus, so probably the saying that we've still got a lot to learn is usually right)
posted by jepler at 5:55 AM on August 25, 2010

Neutrinos. Although, now that you say that, there are several neutrino factories, so a direct test would be to put a radioactive source in the path and turn the beam on and off. The flux and effect size is probably too small for that to work. The flavor of neutrio is also wrong; the beams make mostly muon neutrinos and the sun mostly electron neutrinos (IIRC).
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:15 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's all a bunch of Ba'aloney if you ask me.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:17 AM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Something is rotten in the state of decay.
posted by furtive at 6:26 AM on August 25, 2010

It reads as if they're talking about differences in decay rate that are barely at the threshold of statistical measurement. This is several orders of magnitude off from what's required for Creation Science to be within the realm of possibility.

Creation Science ~ 10^3 years
Age of Universe ~ 10^10 years
Age of Earth ~ 10^9 years
Error for Uranium-Lead Dating: 10^6 years

Even if you double the error bars on radiometric dating (and it doesn't look like this will given the problems replicating these studies), it still falsifies young-earth creationism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:46 AM on August 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Wow...interesting. I bet neutrinos are involved, rather than some new particle. But, if so, this is some effect that we haven't yet accounted for... More experiments, please!
posted by vacapinta at 6:51 AM on August 25, 2010

Creationists are going to love this.

Only if they don't bother reading it (so, yeah). The change, assuming it's real, is a fraction of a percent. It's going to take more than that to get a young earth.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 6:55 AM on August 25, 2010

Ah, the Earth was so much older then
It's younger than that now
posted by Atom Eyes at 8:23 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

1) Science by press release
2) Not peer reviewed
3) Emeritus Prof. also known for his UFO research

I apologize, but my bullshitometer rates this is non-credible.

Let me know when it passes peer review and the same observations are made by other groups.
posted by grajohnt at 9:50 AM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ha! I knew the sun didn't cause premature aging! Those sunscreen ads are such bullshit!

*dies of melanoma*
posted by Sys Rq at 10:26 AM on August 25, 2010

Alternate jokey comment:

New Oil of Soleil Anti-Aging Serum with Cosmic Rays!

Now you too can have the youthful, radiant skin of The Thing.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:30 AM on August 25, 2010

I have been watching this story since the 2008 paper linked by pseudonick above. It's a very interesting suggestion which would have profound implications if true and can't be immediately dismissed.

Lurking in the author list of all these papers (and quoted in the news story that started this discussion) is Ephraim Fischbach. In the late 1980s, Fischbach reanalyzed data taken during the gravitational experiments of Eotvos and collaborators in the 1920s. Fischbach reported a rather striking correlation, at the parts-per-billion level, between gravitational attraction and material composition, when parameterized in a way that makes sense now but would not have using what was known about nuclear physics in the 1920s. A correlation between gravitational attraction and material composition would be a direct contradiction of general relativity, but might have been consistent with a completely new interaction, acting like the nuclear forces but over hundreds of meters rather than over femtometers. This suggestion of a "fifth force" (beyond the known strong, electromagnetic, weak, and gravitational forces) prompted a flurry of experimental activity, with people lowering gravimeters along cliffs, into mine shafts, up towers; dropping laser retroreflectors down the plumb shafts in dams, as the reservoir levels changed; and designing new tabletop experiments. While the force suggested by Fischbach's original reanalysis was ruled out after a few years, the experimental program is still going on, particularly the tabletop experiments --- there are still a few theories that predict gravity is non-Newtonian at short distances, or that the strength is different between different materials, in a way that fits in the gaps of what's been measured so far. Fischbach was influential in getting these programs started, despite having initially been wrong.

After the distance-from-the-sun modulation paper in 2008, Fischbach contacted some colleagues of mine to test the hypothesis that beta decay rates depend on incident neutrino flux. The measurement involved changing the neutrino flux in an activated gold sample by changing its shape, from a foil (where most of the neutrinos just leave the material) to a sphere (where most of the neutrinos have to pass through part of the material. Unfortunately the paper doesn't seem to be published yet, but the difference in neutrino flux was much bigger than the annual modulation for solar neutrinos and the difference in decay rates was nil. If there's an effect, it's not due to electron antineutrinos.

Of course, what comes from the sun is mostly neutrinos, rather than antineutrinos, and has oscillated into a mix of electron, muon, and tau flavors, so the test isn't perfect. I think this story will continue to put out little trickles of fascinating suggestions for a while yet, whichever way it actually resolves.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 10:35 AM on August 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

Also, I don't care a whit about young-earth creationists or their opinions and neither should you.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 10:36 AM on August 25, 2010

It surprises me that solar flares slow down the rate of decay rather than speed it up.

Radioactive decay of the sort these experiments are discussing is energetically favored, but is inhibited by a potential barrier (as I understand it). Normally, adding even a small amount of energy would be expected to make a decay event more probable, not less, wouldn't it?

The only counterexample that occurs to me is in conventional atomic physics, where shining a light on an excited atom in a metastable state can lead not to ionization (which would correspond to radioactive decay in the original example) but to the mere emission by the atom of a photon of similar frequency to the incident photon, leaving the excited atom in a more stable, rather than less stable state.

Lasing, in other words.

I don't know whether stimulated emission of a particle rather than a photon by an identical particle of the same energy is possible, but if this is a case of stimulated emission of neutrinos, wouldn't the necessity of precisely tuned energies complicate terrestrial experiments, such as the one with gold foil, designed to show the change in decay rates due to exposure to neutrinos?
posted by jamjam at 2:27 PM on August 25, 2010

Hmmm, except that ionization is not energetically favored in my analogy.
posted by jamjam at 2:34 PM on August 25, 2010

It all reads like some sort of science fiction story. If it were a movie, there'd be lots of "But that's impossible!" and "That doesn't make sense!" and guys in lab coats looking pensive. And the President going "Get me the head of the NSF, immediately. Can we use it to kill people?"

Then it would turn out it's actually a super special particle that aliens use to communicate. Or a force that allows us to transmute materials that shouldn't be transmutable, or enables cheap fusion, or an interaction with a parallel universe. And then some sort of expedition to the Sun would have to be made.

But I hope these interactions bear out, because it would mean brand new physics to be puzzled by!
posted by BungaDunga at 2:44 PM on August 25, 2010

Sadly, all of this seems to be doing nothing to slow my rate of decay.
posted by bwg at 6:20 PM on August 25, 2010

Oh my god, you guys. What if radioactive decay rates on Earth are affecting solar activity?!
posted by brundlefly at 11:51 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

And now the fine structure constant is varying.
posted by jepler at 5:41 AM on August 26, 2010

Even pi is changing :-)
posted by lukemeister at 8:37 AM on August 26, 2010

To exactly 3?

Cause that would be pretty great.
posted by paisley henosis at 5:40 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Half-life doesn't depend on source shape, in press.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 6:50 AM on August 27, 2010

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