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The Mutability of Immutable Decay

Boy, did this come out of left field: Something in the Sun alters the rates of radioactive decay of certain isotopes. Read that again, and slowly. You are in the presence of an exceedingly rare thing: experimental results that call into question something once thought to be about as settled as science gets.

To summarize for those in too much of a hurry this morning to click to the article: Scientists at Stanford and Purdue (hardly cranks or lightweights) have measured differences in the decay rates of certain short-lived radioisotopes. That’s boggling enough, given my own science education (granted, now 35+ years old) which indicated that decay rates were utterly immutable. But your boggler isn’t finished yet: The differences in decay rate appear to be synchronized to the period of rotation of the core of the Sun–33 days. So something the Sun is doing is influencing the timing of nuclear decay, way out here at just short of a hundred million miles’ distance.

Wow. Like, wow.

Because the core of the Sun is where solar neutrinos happen, the assumption is that neutrino flux is what does the job, as strange a notion as that is. Neutrinos are as close to nothing as things come without actually being nothing, and they can pass right through the core of the Earth without slowing down, much less hitting something two millimeters wide sitting on somebody’s lab bench. The effects are minute but measurable, and not an illusion. Somebody, somewhere (perhaps more than one somebody) is going to score a Nobel for this.

It’s too early to say much more, but I’ll put on my Scientific Wild-Assed Guesser’s Hat here and suggest that there’s another, more intriguing explanation: gravity waves generated by the rotation of the Sun’s considerable mass, particularly its core, where most of its mass lies. The rate of decay of radioisotopes might depend on the local curvature of space. If that curvature changes, as by a passing gravity wave, the rate may change. (Don’t ask for references here; I made it up on the spot and it’s nothing more than a wild speculation.)

The cool thing about this is that it might be testable, with patience and better instruments than we have right now. (Having a small black hole to play with would help a lot, but I won’t wait up for that.)

The Universe, my friends, is full of surprises!


  1. Jim Tubman says:

    Could this be related to the endochronic properties of resublimated thiotimoline? (Isaac Asimov’s fictional chemical that dissolved 1.12 seconds before being added to water.) It is almost as spooky.

    1. Erbo says:

      Thiotimoline is also used as the activating substance for a bridge to a “mirror universe,” as chronicled by Spider Robinson, the Official Scribe of Callahan’s Place. (See “Mirror, Mirror, Off the Wall” in Time Travelers Strictly Cash.)

  2. Carrington Dixon says:

    “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” — J.B.S.Haldane

  3. Bernie Sidor says:

    Jeff, The statement that really struck me was,

    “The story begins, in a sense, in classrooms around the world, where students are taught that the rate of decay of a specific radioactive material is a constant. This concept is relied upon, for example, when anthropologists use carbon-14 to date ancient artifacts………..”

    The ramifications of this are truly amazing. Would this now cast doubt anytime we make assumptions on how old any carbon based life forms may be? dinosaur bones, fossils, etc… We don’t know if in the past that the radioactive decay may have been altered.

    1. KD says:

      Bernie: At the moment, I think no one can answer your question.

      After there has been enough study of the phenomenon to get a handle on what the mechanism is, I would not be surprised to find that scientists will be able to put reasonable upper limits on how much the decay rates could have been perturbed over the eons. This would widen the error bars on age estimates based on radioactive decay, but probably not by a great deal.

      Of course, if it turns out that the mechanism is something whose strength in the past we cannot estimate and which could, conceivably, have greatly increased the decay rates, then that could greatly reduce the utility of age estimates based on radioactive decay.

      I think that radioactive decay is not the only method available for estimating the age of objects, so we would not be left completely at sea. I believe that measurements using radioactive decay were considered to be more reliable than the other methods. Perhaps that no longer will be true.

      But look on the bright side: If it turns out that the rate of radioactive decay can be changed, perhaps we could exploit that to greatly speed up the decay of unwanted fission reactor waste products and thus eliminate the problem of finding places to safely store them for tens of thousands of years. Yeah, I know, we probably won’t be so lucky as to find a way to do that, but I can dream for a while.

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