November 25, 2010

A Non-scientist’s Conjecture about Anomalous Decay Rates

I’m sure one of our scientist readers can put this to rest quickly, but here’s the deal. I made a post back in August about this article that was circulating then, concerning observed changes in radioactive decay rates that were definitely not supposed to ever change:

When probing the deepest reaches of the Cosmos or magnifying our understanding of the quantum world, a whole host of mysteries present themselves. This is to be expected when pushing our knowledge of the Universe to the limit.

But what if a well-known — and apparently constant — characteristic of matter starts behaving mysteriously?

This is exactly what has been noticed in recent years; the decay rates of radioactive elements are changing. This is especially mysterious as we are talking about elements with “constant” decay rates — these values aren’t supposed to change. School textbooks teach us this from an early age.

This is the conclusion that researchers from Stanford and Purdue University have arrived at, but the only explanation they have is even weirder than the phenomenon itself: The sun might be emitting a previously unknown particle that is meddling with the decay rates of matter. Or, at the very least, we are seeing some new physics.

Last night I was wondering if the particle explanation might not be right: perhaps what is being measured is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves. We have been trying to detect them in various ways for some time now, but with no success. My thought is that perhaps the decay rates are remaining constant–and spacetime is being stretched by a gravitational wave in a way that we aren’t aware of because our perception remains constant (as it would within time dilation effects–in this case applied to a whole region of space). But–I don’t really have the math to work on or fully understand such things, and I may be just talking like a person who believes he has invented a perpetual motion machine.


  1. Carole Corlew on November 25th, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    I so hope the science-y people will weigh in on this one.

  2. jon on November 25th, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Speaking of gravitational waves, there is currently the LIGO project which measures them. Advanced LIGO will be online in a few years (higher sensitivity)

  3. Rolo on November 25th, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Disclaimer: I’m a quantum physicist, and my knowledge of particle and gravitational physics is not perfect.
    However, I much prefer a particle interaction as the explanation than any relativistic effects. The problem with a relativistic explanation, in my opinion, is that gravity is far too weak a force to cause statistically significant oscillations. I still think there is a possibility of a systematic error in their measurement that they haven’t found yet that will explain the whole thing.

  4. Daryl Scroggins on November 25th, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Thanks Jon, thanks Rolo–I’m grateful for your thoughts and information. I guess some of my reluctance to take up the particle interaction was that, as I understand it, we would need to see something like neutrinos suddenly having an effect that goes against our understanding of neutrinos. Would this difference have something to do with a new kind of particle, or with a sudden increase in the volume of a known particle? Maybe it’s my love of poetry that made me think it would be interesting if a ripple in space-time would change not the underlying material properties at the scale of isotope decay, but the “rate” of our measuring of such things–as if our perception of time is being momentarily attenuated.

    I’m way out of my league here, but it’s fun to think about such things.

  5. SC on November 25th, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Has anyone checked to see if anomalous decay rates correspond to Dr. Who episodes? In my world, time tends to go very slow after the end of the season, sometimes picking up a bit for the Xmas specials and then slowing down again until the first spring episode. As many have noted, the years between 1989 and 2005 were very slow, generally disappointing, and plagued with anomalous decay rates.

  6. Sheila Ryan on November 25th, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Anomalous decay rates have been my personal bête noire for — well, for most of my life.

  7. Daryl Scroggins on November 25th, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    I’m sure dentists will want to get in on this.

  8. Rolo on November 26th, 2010 at 2:13 am

    The interesting part of the research is finding that the oscillations are periodic with the Sun’s rotation. If this observation is correct, then we have to assume that something from the Sun is interacting with the atomic decay. The standard model can’t at the moment explain these effects, whether by neutrinos or some unknown particle, but no physicist really believes the SM really is a complete description of particle interactions. I am sure the first thing these physicists are doing is estimating the magnitude of the perturbation needed to change these decay rates, and I’m fairly sure this will rule out anything gravitational. Then again, it’s sure to be physics we have not yet understood, so the cause could be an interaction with any force.

  9. Jorge Fiscina on November 26th, 2010 at 4:06 am

    what about this comment posted on September 27, 2010 by Anthony Watts? Some of you have references about this published in Physics Journals? I was not able to find them.

  10. Daryl Scroggins on November 26th, 2010 at 9:21 am

    Thanks, Rolo. And Jorge, this is a great link here–thanks for bringing it. I love this part:

    “According to NIST scientist emeritus Richard Lindstrom, the variations observed in other experiments may have been due to environmental conditions interfering with the instruments themselves.

    ‘There are always more unknowns in your measurements than you can think of,’ Lindstrom says.”

    I like the way “environmental” factors encompasses so much. I’m still thinking about periodic spacetime strain and continuum deformation and all of that. It would be interesting if there were a focal point of gravity wave generation that increased the prominence of effects in a limited zone. But, then, the measuring appatus may have been jostled by a sudden drop in barometric pressure!

  11. Dan Smalley on November 27th, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Re environmental factors and apparent periodicity of observed events: A highly sensitive experiment to investigate the value of the gravitational constant found that the local gravitational force was oscillating around a certain value on a 24 hour cycle, something that had never been observed before. They spent a long time trying to calibrate the equipment and remove factors that might be affecting their results but they still found this 24 hour cycle in the value of G.
    Eventually they realised that the sports field outside was watered on an automatic system every day at 7AM, minutely altering the mass located in the vicinity of the experiment.

  12. Daryl Scroggins on November 27th, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Thanks Dan–this is a great story about the sprinkler system. I’m always wondering about how forces of all sorts are often viewed almost entirely in terms of pervasive effects rather than in terms of mechanisms that might magnify such forces. I guess what I’m speaking of is something like the difference between power and work (see Stuart Kauffman). How much work might a neuron in a brain do and how weak must a force be to be a force and yet have no possible effect on the neuron? I wrote a poem a long time ago (not a good one–it didn’t make my cut) in which a school of bright fish in a big pond on a distant planet were influenced to move like pixels in response to faint signals arriving from old Earth broadcasts of the I Love Lucy show. The sentient inhabitants of the planet gathered at the pond’s edge to watch.

  13. Robert on December 8th, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    I just posted a blog on the topic, take a look.

  14. Daryl Scroggins on December 8th, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    Thanks Robert–great post. I also anticipated the usual propensity of Creationists to jump at incomplete and poorly understood data as “evidence” (in spite of the fact that they so readily dismiss all evidence that doesn’t fit their hopes). I don’t think we have much to worry about here, as you so clearly say, except for the fact that “facts” derived from crap can travel a long way. I still sort of hope that the anomaly turns out to not be a particle at all, but an effect that indicates some deeper adjustment needed in the SD. It seems more likely, though, that the measurements are simply wrong. As you mention–why would such effects not show up far and wide in a consistent manner?