New physics?

Sep 12, 2011 By Steve Nerlich, Universe Today
The Sun can affect a lot of things on Earth - but the rate of radioactive decay isn’t normally considered to be one of those things. Credit: NASA.

Radioactive decay – a random process right? Well, according to some – maybe not. For several years now a team of physicists from Purdue and Stanford have reviewed isotope decay data across a range of different isotopes and detectors – seeing a non-random pattern and searching for a reason. And now, after eliminating all other causes – the team are ready to declare that the cause is... extraterrestrial.

OK, so it’s suggested to just be the Sun – but cool finding, huh? Well… maybe it’s best to first put on your skeptical goggles before reading through anyone’s claim of discovering new physics.

Now, it’s claimed that there is a certain periodicity to the allegedly variable radioactive decay rates. A certain annual periodicity suggests a link to the varying distance from the Sun to the Earth, as a result of the Earth’s elliptical orbit – as well as there being other overlying patterns of periodicity that may link to the production of large solar flares and the 11 year (or 22 year if you prefer) solar cycle.

However, the alleged variations in decay rates are proportionally tiny and there remain a good deal of critics citing disconfirming evidence to this somewhat radical idea. So before drawing any conclusions here, maybe we need to first consider what exactly good science is:

Replication – a different laboratory or observatory can collect the same data that you claim to have collected.
A signal stronger than noise – there is a discrete trend existent within your data that has a statistically significant difference from the random noise existent within your data.
A plausible mechanism – for example, if the rate of radioactive decay seems to correlate with the position and magnetic activity of the Sun – why is this so?
A testable hypothesis – the plausible mechanism proposed should allow you to predict when, or under what circumstances, the effect can be expected to occur again.

The proponents of variable radioactive decay appeal to a range of data sources to meet the replication criterion, but independent groups equally appeal to other data sources which are not consistent with variable radioactive decay. So, there’s still a question mark here – at least until more confirming data comes in, to overwhelm any persisting disconfirming data.

Whether there is a signal stronger than noise is probably the key point of debate. The alleged periodic variations in radioactive decay are proportionally tiny variations and it’s not clear whether a compellingly clear signal has been demonstrated.

An accompanying paper outlines the team’s proposed mechanism – although this is not immediately compelling either. They appeal to neutrinos, which are certainly produced in abundance by the Sun, but actually propose a hypothetical form that they call ‘neutrellos’, which necessarily interact with atomic nuclei more strongly than neutrinos are considered to do. This creates a bit of a circular argument – because we think there is an effect currently unknown to science, we propose that it is caused by a particle currently unknown to science.

So, in the context of having allegedly found a periodic variability in radioactive decay, what the proponents need to do is to make a prediction – that sometime next year, say at a particular latitude in the northern hemisphere, the radioactive decay of x isotope will measurably alter by z amount compared to an equivalent measure made, say six months earlier. And maybe they could collect some neutrellos too.

If that all works out, they could start checking the flight times to Sweden. But one assumes that it won’t be quite that easy.

The case for:
- Jenkins et al. Analysis of Experiments Exhibiting Time-Varying Nuclear Decay Rates: Systematic Effects or New Physics? (the data)
- Fischbach et al. Evidence for Time-Varying Nuclear Decay Rates: Experimental Results and Their Implications for New Physics. (the mechanism)

The case against:
- Norman et al. Evidence against correlations between nuclear decay rates and Earth–Sun distance.
- The relevant Wikipedia entry

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User comments : 34

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frajo
5 / 5 (11) Sep 12, 2011
This creates a bit of a circular argument because we think there is an effect currently unknown to science, we propose that it is caused by a particle currently unknown to science.
I do love this phrasing.
kevinrtrs
1.2 / 5 (34) Sep 12, 2011
So before drawing any conclusions here, maybe we need to first consider what exactly good science is:

Replication a different laboratory or observatory can collect the same data that you claim to have collected.
A signal stronger than noise there is a discrete trend existent within your data that has a statistically significant difference from the random noise existent within your data.
A plausible mechanism why is this so?
A testable hypothesis the plausible mechanism proposed should allow you to predict when, or under what circumstances, the effect can be expected to occur again.

Glad they put this into this article.
One should strictly apply these principles to the nebular theory and the [biological] evolutionary theory as well.
Good luck with that - which laboratory are you going to use to replicate either of those things which happened in the past? Collecting fossils and making inferences based on dubious assumptions cannot be classified as replication!
kevinrtrs
1.3 / 5 (32) Sep 12, 2011
Just so by the way - the reason this little observation is incredibly important is that if it can indeed be confirmed that there exists a variation in the rate, then one more assumption used in radiometric dating [namely constant decay rate] will bite the dust.
jgfox
2.6 / 5 (22) Sep 12, 2011
I only wish that Climate Scientists would follow the above rules for "Good Science".

But then the amount of published papers would be reduced drastically and hordes of well funded "consensus scientists" would have to find other careers.
yyz
4.9 / 5 (11) Sep 12, 2011
Two additional papers that don't find evidence of variable radioactive decay rates:

1) http://arxiv.org/...48v1.pdf

2) http://arxiv.org/...5326.pdf

The first paper looks at decay of Pu 238 aboard the Cassini spacecraft while the second, out this year, looks at the decay of Au 198. I suppose those favorable to the notion of variable decay rates would point out that not all elements are expected to show signs of variable decay or only to different degrees of observability. Sigh......

There are some good comments posted with the Universe Today story, including some by a former student of Fischbach (lcrowell).

Some sort of independent confirmation of all this would be nice......or some neutrellos!
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (22) Sep 12, 2011
if it can indeed be confirmed that there exists a variation in the rate, then one more assumption used in radiometric dating [namely constant decay rate] will bite the dust.

Read the article. The variation is so tiny that even if it were confirmed it wouldn't affect the variation already given with standard radiometric decay measuremnts.

One should strictly apply these principles to the nebular theory and the [biological] evolutionary theory as well.
Good luck with that - which laboratory are you going to use to replicate either of those things which happened in the past?

That laboratory is the Earth. You discover fossils, infer (i.e. predict) intermediate states...and lo and behold: occasionally we do find them.

Or you just go to the lab and try it out like so:
http://biochemica...the-lab/
Nanobanano
2.9 / 5 (19) Sep 12, 2011
Bumpkus.

Making an observation of the facts is what it is. If the facts contradict previous theory, it is what it is.

The observer should not be required to propose ANY hypothesis about "why" or "how" a relationship exists.

That's part of the problem in "science" right now: The knee-jerk reaction of proposing "new laws" every time you make an observation, when it could be that the old laws or the old interpretations of the old laws are simply wrong or incomplete.

You must also understand that "physics" is a mathematical model APPROXIMATION of reality, and is not reality itself.

The observer should be more concerned with simply observing what is, rather than attempting to explain what is just because the so-called scientific method implies he should.
antialias_physorg
4.5 / 5 (16) Sep 12, 2011
That's part of the problem in "science" right now: The knee-jerk reaction of proposing "new laws" every time you make an observation, when it could be that the old laws or the old interpretations of the old laws are simply wrong or incomplete.

You need to propose a mechanism - otherwise the theory is untestable and you can fall for false correclations.

Example: Leukemia was linked to car pollution because the incidence ratio was higher nearest highways in the US.
Another author linked leukemia to power lines - and a map will show that higher leukemia ratios do coincide with the paths of high voltage power lines in the US.

But: It turns out most high voltage lines in the US run along highways.

It was important to have a proposed meachnism so as to find out which hypothesis was wrong.

Just being aware of a (seeming) correlation isn't enough.
jamey
3 / 5 (6) Sep 12, 2011
You know... Seems I remember discussion of this *other* undetectable particle that was just grabbed out of nowhere because it was needed to explain one particular kind of observation. And it was mentioned that of *COURSE* it was otherwise undetectable - in fact, it interacts *SOOOO* rarely it can go through 50 light years of lead... But because they wanted it to keep their precious "Conservation of Momentum" principle, the physicists were *MORE* than happy to treat it as real well before it could be detected by other means.

The first question should always be - does such a correlation exist. *THEN* once it's shown, you can start asking why, and looking for other correlations. The obvious question in your leukemia example is does the correlation hold where there are highways with no power lines, and power lines where there are no highways? And what do you do if it requires *BOTH* to get a significant result?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (10) Sep 12, 2011
The obvious question in your leukemia example is does the correlation hold

Yes. But without a proposed mechanism you wouldn't even know where to start discriminating between the two models (and you wouldn't be able to make predictions).

Remember that without a hypothesis as to the mechanism you would just have maps that say: Leukemia seems to concentrate in some regions - go figure.
What kind of science would that be? What kind of predictions would you make from that? And how would you test such a statement for global applicability?

It would be completely useless.

But because they wanted it to keep their precious "Conservation of Momentum" principle, the physicists were *MORE* than happy to treat it as real well before it could be detected by other means.

Point being: Once you have postulated the particle you can deduce what other effects it should produce and then go out and try and find it (failing to do so meaning that you have to revise your model)
Oz_Mark
4.8 / 5 (14) Sep 12, 2011
@jgfox - they DO if you would but study the papers
@kevinitrs - is that thinly disguised creationism/intelligent design mumbo jumbo I see? The theory of biological evolution is probably one of the most well established pieces of science, based on numerous independent lines of evidence around. Except for those who have only blind faith of course.

This report establishes nothing - although it MAY lead to some refinement of our understanding of radioactive decay mechanisms (though I doubt it I await more evidence) but it won;t impact our understanding of radiometric dating substantively at all. The earth is approx 4.5 billion years old - that's what all the evidence says.
Callippo
1.5 / 5 (8) Sep 12, 2011
IMO these effects are well explainable with interference of atom nuclei with neutrino flux around Sun. The Sun emanates neutrinos in polar jets, whereas it's surrounded with primordial antineutrinos - it creates a zones, where concentration of matter and antimatter alternates with rotation of Sun and solar flares and which affects the speed of nuclear decay of radioactive elements.

http://www.nature...64a.html
antialias_physorg
4.6 / 5 (8) Sep 12, 2011
@Calippo: So effectively you're using the argument mentioned in the article?
This creates a bit of a circular argument because we think there is an effect currently unknown to science, we propose that it is caused by a particle currently unknown to science.


nicknick
3.3 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2011
Is gravity ruled out ? When the sun is closer to the earth the gravitation field will be higher and according to Einstein time will slow down. So the decay rate will decrease compared to when the sun is farther away.
yyz
5 / 5 (8) Sep 12, 2011
"Is gravity ruled out ? When the sun is closer to the earth the gravitation field will be higher and according to Einstein time will slow down. So the decay rate will decrease compared to when the sun is farther away."

If gravity caused decay rates to vary, would we not see this effect in the plutonium RTGs aboard Cassini (or other interplanetary probes)? This is not observed: http://arxiv.org/...48v1.pdf
Callippo
1 / 5 (1) Sep 12, 2011
@Calippo: So effectively you're using the argument mentioned in the article?
How did you got into it? IMO neutrinos are fairly well known for science and their interactions with heavy atom nuclei was described pretty well too in Nature article.
So the decay rate will decrease compared to when the sun is farther away.
The effects discussed are many orders of magnitude higher than the gravitational time delay. And it doesn't explain the coincidence of radioactive decay speed with Sun core rotation period and solar flares.
Callippo
1 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2011
If gravity caused decay rates to vary, would we not see this effect in the plutonium RTGs aboard Cassini (or other interplanetary probes)? This is not observed
In general I'd expect, the speed of inverse beta decay will be accelerated with neutrinos, whereas the speed of normal beta decay will be accelerated with antineutrinos in accordance to Le-Chattelier principle. But from the Nature article above linked follows, the influence of neutrinos to decay speed of radioactive elements is complex and not easily predictable due the various resonance effects with neutrino oscillations. Some nuclei may be affected with it, some others not.

IMO it's not a new physics but a a new application of well known physical principles.
yyz
5 / 5 (6) Sep 12, 2011
The two data sets used by Fischbach et al, BNL(86) and PTB(98), both had oscillations that were acknowledged at the time of their publication. Both groups noted instrumental variations were likely the cause and Schrader has found this to be the case for the PTB data: http://www.ncbi.n...20018517

Why does Fischbach et al take these data sets at face value? Why not eliminate sources of instrumental error before looking for any such oscillation?

Like Hardy et al: http://arxiv.org/...5326.pdf

Callippo, do you have any refs for *observations* of solar "polar neutrino jets" or "primordial antineutrinos" surrounding the Sun, or are these your personal ideas?
Nanobanano
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2011
If gravity caused decay rates to vary, would we not see this effect in the plutonium RTGs aboard Cassini (or other interplanetary probes)? This is not observed: http://arxiv.org/...48v1.pdf


Brilliant.

In fact, if anything in the Sun changed decay rates, it would tend to follow an inverse squared law of propagation, which in turn would be noticed, unless it was very, very tiny.

For example, light and gravity obey the same basic relationship with regards to intensity vs distance.

Particle ejecta, unlike waves, would not follow that law "exactly," but over relatively short distance such as a few dozen A.U. it would approximately follow the same propagation, either way, if "anything" coming from the Sun altered radioactive decay then you should be able to see a diminishing effect with distance in space probes.
jamesrm
not rated yet Sep 12, 2011
"should be able to see a diminishing effect with distance in space probes."

From memory of what I have read, the probes using radioisotope thermoelectric generators and the effect is buried in the changes in solar thermal radiation, the generators tend to be mounted externally with nice black heat radiators/absorbers.

GreyLensman
5 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2011
Is gravity ruled out ? When the sun is closer to the earth the gravitation field will be higher and according to Einstein time will slow down. So the decay rate will decrease compared to when the sun is farther away.

Not by nearly enough. The problem with popular treatments of science is that they don't throw simple equations out, even when the would help creative folks like yourself analyze ideas.
Pressure2
1 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2011
A new view of old physics is all that is needed. Neutrinos are not particles, they are neutral radiation.

With this view one can explain the missing neutrinos from the sun (no oscillation needed) and explain the variations in decay rates because the background of neutral radiation (the neutrino) is the source of the weak force that causes nearly all radioactive decay. This neutral neutrino radiation varies by distance from the sun, just like light, and solar flares or other out of the ordinary activities going on in the sun.
Callippo
1 / 5 (4) Sep 12, 2011
do you have any refs for *observations* of solar "polar neutrino jets" or "primordial antineutrinos" surrounding the Sun, or are these your personal ideas?
As you probably know, primordial neutrinos are standard L-CDM idea. IMO they're just formed with antineutrinos (thus balancing the "missing" antimatter of the Universe) and they're forming dark matter streaks. As such they contribute to dark matter effects within solar system like the Pioneer and/or flyby anomalies.

Neutrino "jets" are private idea of mine, which could explain, why the periodicity of radioactive elements decay depends on the frequency of the rotation of solar nucleus instead of Sun surface. It's logical: we know, most of solar neutrinos are formed just at the center of Sun.
Callippo
1 / 5 (1) Sep 12, 2011
The Reifenschweiler effect is the observation that the beta-decay of tritium half-life 12.5 years is delayed reversibly by about 25-30% when the isotope is absorbed in 15 nm titanium-clusters in a temperature window in between 160-275 C. Remarkably at 360 C the original radioactivity reappears. The effect is absent in bulk metal. Discovered around 1960/1962 at Philips Research Eindhoven, The Netherlands Reifenschweiler extensively discussed his observation with o.a Casimir (the director of research at the time), Kistemaker (ultracentrifuge expert), and although no satisfactory explanation was found, R. was allowed to publish it. At the time a unique example as to how an electronic environment might affect nuclear phenomena.

http://pages.csam...rts.html
malapropism
5 / 5 (4) Sep 12, 2011
Just so by the way - the reason this little observation is incredibly important is that if it can indeed be confirmed that there exists a variation in the rate, then one more assumption used in radiometric dating [namely constant decay rate] will bite the dust.

No, you are wrong is asserting this. Not only for the reasons that antialias_physorg states but also because, if you bothered to actually think about what is written in the article, the researchers claiming an observed variation find that it is *non-random* as is very clearly stated in the article.
This implies a pattern and patterns are able to be mathematically modeled. All that will be required is to slightly recalibrate existing calculations and once the model is derived that should be quite straightforward. (Hint: it turns out that computers are actually quite good at mathematical modelling.)
bluehigh
1.4 / 5 (9) Sep 13, 2011
it turns out that computers are actually quite good at mathematical modelling.
- malapropism

Computers do not do modelling. Computers are good at calculation. Modelling is done by humans in the form of a specified set of software rules and dumb computers simply crunch through the numbers.

Pyle
3.7 / 5 (6) Sep 13, 2011
My knee jerk reaction to bluehigh's comment was soon followed by a fit of giggles. Did someone just get into a semantic pissing match with a guy whose nick is malapropism? That is funny.

Anyway, on to time dilation and decay. Yes, gravity can effect decay rates. But only to an "outside" observer. The observer outside of the gravity well will observe the rate of decay within the well as being slower than something in his same frame. However, this doesn't work on Earth since all observations and decay are happening within the same frame. (Didn't check the Cassini study on that, yyz?) Moreover, the spacetime curvature caused by the sun at 1 AU is more than minuscule anyway.
bluehigh
2.5 / 5 (8) Sep 13, 2011
Pyle: happy I could brighten up your day. Just for another giggle - did you mean 'less than minuscule', as in insignificant? I am trying to think of a malapropism for pissing match.

Pyle
3.4 / 5 (5) Sep 13, 2011
did you mean 'less than minuscule', as in insignificant?
I absolutely meant less than minuscule. What's worse is I am not even sure where I got the word minuscule from. What I really meant to do was use the author's term and be diminishing.

edit:

Moreover, the spacetime curvature caused by the sun at 1 AU is less than tiny in proportion to the noise in the data.

(The winner of the match is judged by distance and I'm afraid all I did was get my shoes wet.)
frajo
5 / 5 (4) Sep 13, 2011
What's worse is I am not even sure where I got the word minuscule from.
That's interesting. I cannot find a Wikipedia page or an Oxford Dictionary entry referring to (an English analogue of) the typographical term "minuskel" (German) or "miniscule" (French). Both are used for small letters. Their etymology is the Latin "minusculus" which is a diminutive of "minus" which is the diminutiv of "parvus" which means "small".
hush1
5 / 5 (1) Sep 13, 2011
Cool etymology. More or less than minute! lol
Like differences that don't make a difference.
Nik_2213
not rated yet Sep 13, 2011
Uh, do you think NASA might find the money for a 'high orbital eccentricity' probe to study this topic ? The sun-grazer mission that's on a back-burner may suffice...
FWIW, long, long ago when I did 'nuclear & radio-chemistry', one extract decayed *exactly* twice as fast as the textbook predicted: Supervisor checked my working, found no fault, sucked his teeth and, with a straight face, warned me to stay away from nuclear power stations...
malapropism
5 / 5 (1) Sep 13, 2011
it turns out that computers are actually quite good at mathematical modelling.
- malapropism

Computers do not do modelling. Computers are good at calculation. Modelling is done by humans in the form of a specified set of software rules and dumb computers simply crunch through the numbers.

Ok; picky, picky, picky. I stand corrected - computers are actually quite good *for* mathematical modelling - ok?

@Pyle, wrt the "semantic pissing match": nice observation of minutiae there.
bluehigh
1.5 / 5 (6) Sep 18, 2011
Chance is the known effect of every unknown cause.

I have been taken to task previously but stand by my assertion that random events do not exist. (No such thing as random numbers either).