Scientist Smackdown: Are Solar Neutrinos Messing With Matter?

By Andrew Moseman | August 26, 2010 10:52 am

SunSDOThe sun is breaking the known rules of physics—so said headlines that made the rounds of the Web this week.

That claim from a release out about a new study by researchers Jere Jenkins and Ephraim Fischbach of Purdue, and Peter Sturrock of Stanford. The work suggests that the rates of radioactive decay in isotopes—thought to be a constant, and used to date archaeological objects—could vary oh-so-slightly, and interaction with neutrinos from the sun could be the cause. Neutrinos are those neutral particles that pass through matter and rarely interact with it; trillions of neutrinos are thought to pass through your body every second.

In the release itself, the researchers say that it’s a wild idea: “‘It doesn’t make sense according to conventional ideas,’ Fischbach said. Jenkins whimsically added, ‘What we’re suggesting is that something that doesn’t really interact with anything is changing something that can’t be changed.’”

Could it possibly be true? I consulted with Gregory Sullivan, professor and associate chair of physics at the University of Maryland who formerly did some of his neutrino research at the Super-Kamiokande detector in Japan, and with physicist Eric Adelberger of the University of Washington.

“My gut reaction is one of skepticism,” Sullivan told DISCOVER. The idea isn’t impossible, he says, but you can’t accept a solution as radical as the new study’s with just the small data set the researchers have. “Data is data. That’s the final arbiter. But the more one has to bend [well-establish physics], the evidence has to be that much more scrutinized.”

Among the reasons Sullivan cited for his skepticism after reading the papers:

  • Many of the tiny variations that the study authors saw in radioactive decay rates came from labs like Brookhaven National Lab—the researchers didn’t take the readings themselves. And, Sullivan says, some are multiple decades old. In their paper, Fischbach’s team takes care to try to rule out variations in the equipment or environmental conditions that could have caused the weird changes they saw in decay rates. But, Sullivan says, “they’re people 30 years later [studying] equipment they weren’t running. I don’t think they rule it out.”
  • The Purdue-Stanford team cites an example of a 2006 solar flare, saying that they saw a dip in decay rates in a manganese isotope before the occurrence that lasted until after it was gone. Sullivan, however, says he isn’t convinced this is experimentally significant, and anyway it doesn’t make sense: Solar neutrinos emanate from the interior of the sun—not the surface, where flares emerge. Moreover, he says, other solar events like x-ray flares didn’t have the same effect.
  • If it were true, the idea would represent a huge jump in neutrino physics. At the Super-Kamiokande detector, Sullivan says only about 10 neutrinos per day appeared to interact with the 20 kilotons of water. Sullivan says the Purdue-Stanford team is proposing that neutrinos are powerfully interacting with matter in a way that has never before been observed. “They’re looking for something with a very much larger effect than the force of neutrinos, but that doesn’t show up any other way,” he says.

Fischbach and Jenkins, who have published a series of journal articles supporting their theory on neutrinos and radioactive decay, emailed DISCOVER to respond to these criticisms of their work. Regarding the first one, the researchers defended the integrity of the data even though they didn’t take it themselves, saying the experiments “were carried out by two well-known and experienced groups. We have published an analysis of these experiments, in Nuclear Instruments and Methods … showing that the potential impact of known environmental effects is much too small to explain the annual variations.”

And in response to number two—why would you tie neutrinos to a flare, when they emanate from the sun’s interior?—Jenkins and Fischbach write that we know some flares are tied to events deep inside the sun. “We therefore consider it possible that events in the core may influence flares,” they write, “but this remains to be established. We have never claimed that all flares are related to events in the core.”

The big one, though, is number three: are we really seeing some kind of physics never seen before? Fischbach and Jenkins don’t back off:

“We agree that, according to current theory of the standard weak interaction, neutrinos should not be influencing decay rates. We also agree that Super-Kamiokande data are not anomalous. Our position is that either neutrinos have properties we do not yet understand, or some other particle or field behaving like neutrinos is influencing decay rates. In slightly more detail, we are not considering neutrino capture as in the case of Super-K. Rather we work in a picture where neutrinos pass through the sample of decaying nuclei, as they pass through everything else, and exchange an energy on the order of 10-100 eV. Given the sensitivity of beta decays and electron capture to the energy available, the exchange of a small amount of energy in this way could be sufficient to explain the observed effects.”

But for Adelberger of the University of Washington, that is still a huge jump based on what the studies have seen. Adelberger tells DISCOVER that he thinks the variation in decay that the labs like Brookhaven picked up is real. But he agrees with Sullivan that the effect is much more likely to come from a problem with the instruments than some new physics from the sun. He also points to studies over the last couple years (here and here) that show no link between the sun and radioactive decay rates.

Both Adelberger and Sullivan agreed that the Purdue-Stanford findings pave the way to some interesting—and more carefully controlled—research to verify or falsify the idea. But for now, neither is a believer.

“The scenarios Fischbach et. al. invoke to support their interpretations despite contrary data are getting bizarre,” Adelberger tells DISCOVER. “I think it is unlikely to be correct.”

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DISCOVER: Ice Fishing for Neutrinos From the Middle of the Galaxy
DISCOVER: Opening an Icy Eye on the Neutrino Sky

Image: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Physics & Math
  • Sion

    Did they say if they thought it was speeding up or slowing down the decay rates? Or just making them vary in a random way? Are the creationists going to pounce on this?

    Actually I can guess the answer to that last one.

  • http://whatstheharm.net TIm Farley

    Counting down to the first Young Earth Creationist who cites this as proof that Carbon-14 dating of fossils is crap: 10, 9, 8, 7….

  • http://discovermagazine.com Andrew Moseman

    @Sion
    They say in their release that “the decay rate was ever so slightly faster in winter than in summer.”

  • Dan

    Isn’t the idea that decay rates are constant critical to identifying the age of a lot of things in the solar system?

    If decay rates can change, wouldn’t that mean the age of the solar system could be off?

    I’m not arguing that the earth is 6,000 years old. Just that perhaps the earth isn’t *quite* 4.5 billion years old like we thought. Does this decay rate change anything in our understanding of ages of things in the solar system?

  • John

    In physics, whenever the title of a paper is a question, the answer is almost always “no”.

  • MT-LA

    @John: Though I dont disagree with your point, to be fair, the title of this particular paper “Evidence for Solar Influences on Nuclear Decay Rates” isn’t a question.

    The title of this *article* however, is a question. And when the title of an article is a question, it almost always means that the answer to the question isn’t provocative enough to stand on its own merit.

  • Ward

    One interesting possibility, assuming decay rate is being modified and we learn how to do it purposely…

    Imagine for a moment you have a kilo of any mildly radioactive substance and you modify the decay rate such that all the atoms decay in a single millisecond.

    On the plus side, our energy problem would be solved.

  • Chris Winter

    A very new result AFAIK for credibility. But if there’s anything to it, I would expect that the effect would be stronger on high-Z radioisotopes, only because their nuclei are bigger targets.

  • Rob

    @Dan:

    Unlikely, since the previous measured rates would be the average that would mean the numbers would still be consistent. For short time periods it would be an issue, but not for long periods like the age of the solar system.

  • Jake O’Keefe

    Wouldn’t this effect have already been seen in the many nuclear power plants around the world by changes in their power levels and criticality?

  • Michael Seery

    @Jake:

    Excellent point.

  • Ra

    @Dan
    Possibly, but also consider that is the rates are off, the earth could be much older than previously thought due to the decay rate decreasing. Though I think alot of this will turn out to have alot more to do with the equipment used or the software used.

  • Alex Besogonov

    @Jake:

    Nuclear chain reactions do not depend on spontaneous decay, they are caused by neutron absorption. It’s not going to be influenced by this effect.

    There can be variations in the half-lives of radioactive fission products (and the power from their decay). However, the composition of fission products changes over the lifetime of a reactor and is influenced by a lot of other factors. So any effect will probably be buried in a lot of background noise.

    It might be possible to extract it, but it’s decidedly non-trivial.

  • Patrick

    The change is very slight so things are not all that different than science originally thought.

    However, it does show that science is simply a summary of our observations. It is impossible for science to establish truth. I guarantee you in 1000 years our view of science will be quite a bit different than it is today with many “established” laws very different.

  • Charles

    The main point of interest to me is the possibility that radioactive rates of decay are not constant and can be affected by outside forces, not by how much. This is a fundamental assumption that has taken as fact because rates are constant over the period of historical observation and we don’t know of any way to alter them (or we have not yet observed any force in operation in the universe that has done so). It opens up a major can of worms as may dearly held theories and beliefs may find themselves floundering for solid ground to stand on. But hey, its something we should expect, paradigm changes are bound to happen. Its not the first time this has happened to science, and it won’t be the last. And considering what fraction of the potential observable data in the universe we have managed to even collect much less study and understand, its probably going to keep on happening for a long long time.

  • Alex Besogonov

    “This is a fundamental assumption that has taken as fact because rates are constant over the period of historical observation and we don’t know of any way to alter them (or we have not yet observed any force in operation in the universe that has done so).”

    Not really. We can affect decay rates in a number of ways:
    1) By irradiating a sample with neutrons (or any other fast particles, really).
    2) By smashing nuclei apart in accelerators.
    3) Some types of decay can be affected (slightly) by the chemical composition of samples.
    Etc.

    It’s not like decay is magical.

  • Brett

    Or more precisely Alex its not like anything ever observed is magical. Also the decay rates of atoms can be altered through mostly brute force types of experiments. The decay rates are pretty dang constant for any natural scenario since the birth of our solar system (With the exception of the interior of the sun).

  • Lonny Eachus

    “Data is data. That’s the final arbiter. But the more one has to bend [well-establish physics], the evidence has to be that much more scrutinized.”

    In other words, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, eh?

    But I think the main point here is that regardless of the actual cause, it seems the effect HAS been observed. And almost no matter what the explanation is, it is likely to be some kind of interaction of which we were previously unaware.

    Which makes their theory just a bit less far-fetched. But of course it could just as easily be some completely different interaction.

  • Lonny Eachus

    @14 Patrick

    Try more like 50 years. The changes in just the last 100 or 120 have been very large, and the pace has been accelerating.

    Of course, we do keep getting incrementally closer to “truth”, as Asimov explained in The Relativity of Wrong. But even these incrementally smaller changes in our understanding have led to fundamental advances in technology.

  • Andy

    It seems that to get a rate of decay, you would have to have a precise knowledge of time. How was time measured in these experiments?

    If it was with an atomic clock, wouldn’t the atomic clock be affected, too?

  • Alex Besogonov

    @Andy:

    No, atomic clocks should not depend on nuclear decay.

  • Cary

    A simple explanation for the faster “apparent” decay in the winter season…
    Santa’s temporal disturbance device — the thingie that Santa uses to slow time while he distributes presents. A major weakness of the temporal disturbance device is that it is unable to influence radioactive decay, so more decay events appear to have occurred once the device is turned off.

  • John

    I’m not a young earther by any stretch, though I am a Christian. So Tim in post 7 keep your powder dry.

    Anyway, here is my question- is decay a less accurate measure of age than we thought? And if so, how less accurate? Seconds? Minutes? Years? Decades? Centuries? How “off” can Carbon-14 dating be?

    My reason is more about archeology than cosmology. I have no problem with the universe and the earth being quite ancient. However, dating historical events is of interest to me as I quite enjoy archeology and the study of ancient civilizations. I’ve seen Carbon 14 dating used to link artifacts to particular dynasties or even a given ruler. Could these variants bring such results into question? Or are we talking a shift in accuracy which is less than a half a century?

  • peter

    the moon cycle is close to 30 days (29.53)
    i can imagine the moon quite a big mass, and has some tiny effect on earth’s received radiation (and gravitation) by neutrino’s or other particles. (ps you need to see this in orbital view, as i dont think its the shades of the moon itself have any effect.

    Somehow i think these people might be onto something, if things like this emerge from simple statistical work, then they are onto something, whatever it will be. The fact is we know a lot of high energy physics of these particles, but low energy physics we cannt observe.

    i know its from a different order but there is gas liquid and solid, what if high energy physics only try to explain gas, but isnt able to explain liquid?
    but beyond that, there many type of cristal structures etc.. if we scale down to the world of particle physics why not should there be all kind of effects, we simply have not observed before. particle physics is far from a closed book. Anyway he should check other data sources, or recreate the test, maybe on 4 sides or 6 sides of the earth.

    very interesting and low cost, this deserves more respect i think, and more investigation.

  • John walsh

    Surely the theory that would reduce decay rates (not increase them) would be through the Quantum Zeno Effect…. a “watched” particle never decays. The more “watching particles” the ‘slightly” more stable the particle is to decay. This is another instance of Yakir Aharanov’s “protective measurements”.

    On the point of increasing decay rates of radioactive species…. clearly we can increase decay rates …. atoms bombs work by that principle? It is not etched in stone as some “immutable law”. Alex Besogonov (above) is right. I also do not see that it is destroying any basic physics tenant.

  • DaveW

    John,

    One thing about carbon dating is that it can be used on things that we have an actual historical date on. That helps verify the accuracy of it.

  • Ward

    If I remember correctly radioactive decay is different from fission. Decay being the spontaneous breaking apart of an unstable atom. Whereas fission is the breakup due to being hit by a neutron.

    You get a critical mass when the neutrons produced from spontaneous decay is enough to set off a chain reaction where enough neutrons are being produced than are necessary to break up less atoms.

    It’s possible that our calculations of radioactive decay include those broken up by existing neutrons, not sure.

    Last but not least, due to the very very small changes we are talking about I would guess that any difference in isotope decay dating (carbon and others) would be well within the existing +/- error rate.

    BTW, if my memory and I are wrong, please say so, I gave up being all knowing as a teenager.

  • rndtc

    I’m interested in how this relates to our experiments on relativity, for example, we all know about the atomic clocks experiments, two clocks, one on a plane, one on earth, plane loops earth, variation in the reading of the two clocks, relativity. And in everyday life, most of us know that the clocks in satellites run at a slightly different rate as to clocks on earth.

    Now, if the decay rate can fluctuate, and we could create a clock that works on decay rates(requiring very fast decay rates), use it in a similar experiment(with the atomic clocks for reference), it would stand to reason that we should also see relativistic fluctuation on top of these neutrino based fluctuation in decay rates, or would we… ;)

    Now, consider this, the ‘rate or time’ of time we experience on Earth is related to the speed that our planet rotates the sun, compounded by the speed that our solar system rotates around the galactic core, and the rate at which we are heading towards Andrometer, any rouge black holes(or exotic high density matter) throwing turbulence into our ‘flow’, etc, etc…

    Perhaps these fluctuation in the decay rate are actually fluctuation in the ‘rate of time’; we are looking at the wrong constant fluctuating.

  • Danny

    As published elsewhere, it is suggested that the decay rates vary in a 33 day cycle and that this may correspond to neutrinos emitted by the sun’s core implying the core rotates every 33 days.

    How is it possible for the sun’s core to rotate slower than the outer layers of the sun? Doesn’t this violate angular momentum theory too?

    So maybe the sun’s neutrinos have nothing to do with it. It could be the “rate of time” fluctuations as noted above by rndte, or I like to fancy it is an unknown form of entanglement between fusion and fission……. fusion in the sun automatically requires fission here to avoid reducing total entropy. Yes, decay and fission are different things, but they have the same end result: more entropy, don’t they?

  • gdl

    The biggest reason for skepticism, in my opinion, is that they’re using old data that they didn’t collect themselves. I know from first-hand experience that obscure detector effects can produce small, otherwise unexplainable variations in data. Things like knowing that the optical glue coupling photodiode #114 got a little bit more yellow as it aged than its neighbor, or remembering that Joe bumped into one of the calorimeter assemblies on September 14 but John recalibrated it on September 23. These effects are taken into account in results published by the experimental groups themselves, but there’s no way anyone not intimately familiar with the detector could possibly know about them. They don’t matter for big signatures, of course, but they could easily be responsible for really small (but statistically significant) signatures.

    In the last high energy physics detector collaboration I worked on, I remember discussions about setting up a long-term data archive. Our biggest concern was that someone who didn’t fully and completely understand the detector would use the data to look for very small signatures. We were afraid they might find something and claim evidence for new physics, when they were really just looking at a detector effect. My gut reaction says that’s exactly what happened here.

  • anna v

    Two points:

    The statement “decay rates are constant” is a statement describing local physics. As far as general relativity goes decay rates depend on the topology of space time; the same is true of the velocity of light, another so called constant, that is only locally constant.

    Any interaction with the neutrino field introduces an extra weak vertex. No energy exchange can happen without this extra vertex. The extra weak vertex introduces in the probability a 10^-12 diminution, and they are talking of 0.2% effects. It cannot be neutrinos.

    Even if there is a correlation with neutrino bursts or solar flares, correlations are not causation. The whole solar system could be going through a rough patch of space time.
    Measuring accurately the velocity of light over a few sun cycles is an easier experiment than measuring decay rate changes.

    I would vote for data contamination. Otherwise this would be a first measurement of gravitons, ;)

    I also agree with what 30. gdl Says:

    “Our biggest concern was that someone who didn’t fully and completely understand the detector would use the data to look for very small signatures. We were afraid they might find something and claim evidence for new physics, when they were really just looking at a detector effect. My gut reaction says that’s exactly what happened here.”

  • Douglas Cohen

    The scientists claiming that decay rates have changed sound like they are “four flushing” in the way described by the post

    “Big Science Poker Game”

    http://climaterealists.com/index.php?id=5221

    They don’t yet have enough evidence to make their case.

  • Steve

    I agree with John Walsh, above – this sounds like a candidate for explanation via the quantum zeno effect. Note that, contrary to what John says, it can both decrease or increase radioactive decay, the latter being called the “anti-zeno” effect (but really the same thing, only a different frequency of observations).

    Per this article in Nature, 2000, the anti-zeno effect has been experimentally verified to increase the rate of radioactive decay: “Acceleration of quantum decay processes by frequent observations”:
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v405/n6786/abs/405546a0.html

    So, if neutrinos “observe” atomic nuclei, and the rate of neutrino observations changes appreciably, it isn’t a huge leap to assume that the rate of radioactive decay will change as a result of the quantum zeno effect.

  • John Walsh

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for that reference Steve… I had not heard of the “anti-zeno effect” but it does make a lot of sense if atom states are “resonant” features that have a characteristic resonant decay rate. This “two sided feature” is also reported in this ArXiv downloadable paper… “Observation of the Quantum Zeno and Anti-Zeno effects in an unstable system” M. C. Fischer, B. Guti´errez-Medina, and M. G. Raizen 08/Apr/01.
    http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/quant-ph/pdf/0104/0104035v1.pdf
    Neutrinos are in the unusual circumstance of being very unreactive in matter but that should not imply that the “bulk effect” of their huge flux as it passes through material and their very high speed being indistinguishable from the speed of light should not impart some significant collective “protective measurement” on a nucleus. It would “appear” that a tuned beam of just the right neutrino density/frequency could cause a specific unstable nuclear species to rapidly decay or to have a slightly longer lifetime depending on flux. In this case according to this paper a simplistic interpretation of low flux rates would increase the decay rate for certain unstable nuclei while higher flux rates would prolong the lifetime for the same nuclear species. The distance from the sun as well as level of solar activity may be a deciding factor in this flux density providing different outcomes.

  • http://tcs.uj.edu.pl/jarek?lang=0 Jarek

    There is also another news strongly suggesting that we should revise nuclear physics:
    http://www.physorg.com/news202020721.html
    So maybe they are not just blurry, fluctuating as in QM picture, but rather have some concrete spatial structure near (local?) energy minimum? (analogously to protein folding)
    These energy minimas can have different shape – depth, width – and so different statistical dependence on energy carriers like Sun’s neutrinos – comparing such behavior of different isotopes could became the basic tool to finally understand the structure of nucleuses …

  • http://www.cosmology-particles.pl Sylwester Kornowski

    As the years go by the probability of finding the Higgs boson(s) and the -inos and s-particles postulated within the supersymmetry is lower and lower. My theory shows that soon we will have to change our vision of nature. The phase transitions of the Newtonian spacetime (it is gas composed of the structureless tachyons) lead, among other things, to the Einstein spacetime – in the ground state it is the field composed of the non-rotating binary systems of NEUTRINOS and its pressure is about 10^44 Pa so it is smooth. The particles bigger than the neutrinos, consist of the binary systems of neutrinos. There are the exchanges of the solar neutrinos for the neutrinos in the binary systems of neutrinos. It suggests that neutrinos should be influencing the rates of radioactive decay in isotopes. My theory starts from only seven parameters and leads to the constants applied in physics and to the other experimental data. The calculations are very simple. I described mathematically the properties of the liquid-like plasma – see the formulae describing the pseudorapidity density in nucleon-nucleon collisions and the temperature and density of the liquid-like plasma.

  • Ed White

    Is it just me or doesn’t this sound like the smoking gun in the plot to the movie 2012? Life imitates art (just not as extremely) or some scientists are taking cues from art rather than reality. Time and research will tell.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ Ed White:

    Ha! I think you’re right. As I remember it, the quote that made me crack up was something like: “My God, the neutrinos — they’re mutating!”

    – Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • Stu

    It sounds like this is the same phenomena detected over 10 years ago:

    http://www.21stcenturysciencetech.com/articles/time.html

  • miki

    Is there any neutrinos on earth, if so, in which form ?? Is it possible to find it in a solid form ??

  • Kevin

    My question is, if anything can influence decay rates, can they be completely stopped or accelerated to such an extent that the atoms decay instantly?

  • Melaniki

    It is the arrogance of modern humanity, read that as mainly white males since they dominate these fields of “science”, who presume to know all there is to know about a planet on which they are barely a registered dot on the radar, and about a universe they can hardly generate the tiniest reaction in. “We think it, therefore it is so. We say it, therefore it is law.” No wonder my indigenous ancestors locked away the books and sacred records covering these matters for distant generations to discover; generations who would again see nature as a school of learning and the universe as…well a university! This generation is definitely unworthy. An arrogant and pompous group who walk upside down in circles and think they are actually going some place. Sheesh.

  • http://festival-local.com/ locale

    Ct’s arduous to search out knowledgeable individuals on this subject, nevertheless , you sound like you already know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  • Mike

    The research that discovered the varying rate of decay during a solar flare in 2006 did not conclude that the variance was caused by neutrinos, but merely noted the change in decay rate during the storm. To assume the change was caused by neutrino influence is reckless, and hasn’t been established.

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