Astronomy Without A Telescope – New Physics?

Article written: 10 Sep , 2011
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
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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



22 Responses

  1. Member
    IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says

    Don’t be surprised to see young-Earth creationists (YEC) running with that ball while totally ignoring the off-side rule!

  2. Member
    IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says

    Don’t be surprised to see young-Earth creationists (YEC) running with that ball while totally ignoring the off-side rule!

  3. Anonymous says

    Nice write-up, Steve!

    Reminds me of that kind of bad flick “2012” by Roland Emmerich. Some “strange” neutrinos heat up the earth core. Oh well.
    Maybe they are correlated with these neutrellos. We should prepare for a heat wave from below next year. And since they are supposed to interact stronger with matter, I wonder if we could catch a signal with our current detectors. Or if some water starts boiling deep down in a mine in India.

    The next thing, I wonder about, is, which journal will accept their paper apart from arxiv?

  4. Anonymous says

    I’ve seen this work by Fischbach, Jenkins et al receive much discussion on internet fora, some of it pretty out there (well beyond what’s covered in the literature and mostly speculative). Personally, some independent verification would be welcome. Until then, I’m not convinced there’s any new physics here.

    Two additional papers that don’t find evidence of variable radioactive decay rates:

    1) http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/0809/0809.4248v1.pdf

    2) http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1108/1108.5326.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.

    [I’m waiting for some neutrellos too, Steve]

  5. Anonymous says

    Thanks for writing about this.

    I’ve noticed that the idea proposed in this paper (variable decay rates caused by solar particle interactions) has now been accepted as confirmed fact by the various pop-science circles on the internet, as well as some of the more sciency newage groups. So much as that when I mentioned radioactive dating at work a couple months ago, the uneducated schmucks that I work with told me that “radioactive dating isn’t accurate because of the sun”.

    So way to go, woowoo generators.

  6. Member
    Anonymous says

    Variable radioactive decay is a ‘hot’ topic! I think I’ll wait a bit to decide which of many path has merit, as our understanding improves. Go LHC!

    P.S. Mr. Nerlich, I recently listened to your podcast with your popster… Good stuff! and obviously a great tradition in the works!

  7. Anonymous says

    There is a Google News link to this article in the Physics section.

    🙂

  8. Anonymous says

    E. Fischbach has a curious career of coming up with this sort of physics. Back in the 1980s he promoted this idea of a fifth force, which turned up nil. This claim of a variable decay rate with solar distance has been his latest baby for the last couple of years. I suspect it will die out as well.

    LC

  9. Already an early Known facts by any good physics student as well as death findings.

  10. Torbjörn Larsson says

    Well, it is possible, it would be interesting, it wouldn’t change earlier physics.

    That and myriads of other possible effects that are mostly patterns to search for, something biological creatures likes to do (it is a risk detector for environmental, predatory, and/or social threats). So it would be interesting, but the context makes it mundane and even boring as of right now.

    [No reflection on AWAT, which I really like!]

    This creates a bit of a circular argument

    In philosophy, which does not concern itself with empirical matters of what is, that is presumably a bad thing. Or so they persist in telling me.

    In empiricism it is presumably a measure of predictive strength, since if a test can validate a link in the circular chain, the whole chain is validated.

    In fact, observations and theories are circular. Theories are based on (some of) the facts that they predict. A fully tested theory is precisely circular with its facts, making circularity the strongest empirical construct I know of.

    New facts breaks circularity, and the search for an even more powerful “circular argument” begins anew.

    • Anonymous says

      This idea is pure physical buncombe. Fischbach is operating the same way he did with the fifth force stuff. Back then he took old data taken by Oetvos which measured any deviation from the inertial and gravitational mass of a body. Never mind that far more exact data had been taken since then, DOH?! Fischbach then found these differences in this data which he attributed to this fifth force. I was there when this happened, I took a couple of course from Fischbach, and back in the mid 1980s he was flying this big flag about the fifth force. Interestingly he got a call from Richard Feynman who told him why he was completely wrong. That did not faze him and he persisted in this for 10 or so years afterwards.

      I am not sure whether what Fischbach is quoting as data is that reliable. There are now several papers out demonstrating no such solar variation in radioactive decay based on other data. Certainly the RTG power supplies on deep space probes should have yielded some measurable change in power output. The physical idea of a neutrello is pure horse billiards nonsense, meant to give a name to some putative particle which gives rise to this alleged effect — playing Fermi as it might be with his assigning a name to an as then unobserved particle, the neutrino.

      This has the earmarks of a trend: Find some oddity in some data set, cherry pick that in some way so one can count some deviation and then assign some new physics to that deviation. I suppose the guy has got to be getting close to retirement, but if not I suspect he will in due time drum up some other quirky thing and build a case for new physics around that.

      LC

      • Member
        IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says

        “We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.”
        —Richard Feynman.

      • Anonymous says

        There is a difference between being wrong on something, and being fatuous. The distinction is subtle, but one can be wrong an honest about it. I have worked several theories where it is now clear they are wrong. An extended standard model I worked up years ago is probably headed for the trash heap with the 3-sigma exclusion of the Higgs particle. A lot of physics is going down as a result of that. The problem with this claim by Dr. Fischbach is that it has earmarks of the same thing he did with the 5th force stuff. With the 5th force work he worked with Eotvos’ data from the early 20th century. This was mysterious to me then, for modern experiments on the equivalence principle of considerably greater accuracy had been done since. Some sort of drift in those old data sets was used to claim the existence of a fifth force. In this case some nuclear decay data was used which had some sort of drift or change.

        There is an interesting claim of a variation with a CME event from the sun. The interesting thing is that these events are largely low energy and involve the transport of plasma from the near surface solar interior by magnetic means. The claim of particle physics and neutrellos for such an event would mean such physics should be observed in high temperature plasma physics in the laboratory. The physical mechanism proposed for this simply does not make sense.

        The reports of negative data also indicate that something is amiss with this as well. The whole business has that “Fischbach signature” to it. I do not think he is outright dishonest here, but I think he latches onto anomalous data and results and runs with it. I am 99% sure this will burn off like the morning fog, just as with the 5th force. It is for this reason there is a fatuous aspect to this, which is not as bad as dishonesty, but it seems lesser than making an honest effort and simply being wrong in the end.

        LC

      • Member
        IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says

        Richard Feynman also said: “There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in ‘cargo cult science’. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it; other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

        “Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

        “In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”

      • Member
        IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says

        Richard Feynman also said: “There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in ‘cargo cult science’. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it; other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

        “Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

        “In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”

    • Member
      Steve Nerlich says

      Agree a circular, self-sustaining argument isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It what it is – though doesn’t really strengthen the case on its own.

    • TerryG says

      A fully tested theory is precisely circular with its facts, making circularity the strongest empirical construct I know of.

      If I understand your subtlety correctly Torbjörn, the above quote could be equivalently restated that circularity is necessary but insufficient for a theory to be accepted. Sufficiency is achieved with experimental/empirical verification.

      Consider for a moment replacing “circularity” with self-consistency.

      Definition: A circular reference is a series of references where the last object references the first, resulting in a closed loop.

      Definition: A self-consistent theory is logically consistent throughout; having each part consistent with the rest. That is, having no logical inconsistencies.

      As a quick example, QM is a highly successful theory that, in one instance, predicts super-conductivity, a classical effect which is readily observable. QM is a self-consistent theory and experimentally verified. But how is QM, what you would call “circular”?

      Maybe I just misunderstand the semantics and that “circularity” and self-consistency are pretty much the same thing. If you have time, your thoughts please.

  11. Anonymous says

    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.

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