Radioactive decay rates... decreasing... because of... the Sun????

When I see something like this on Slashdot, I figure it's the usual crap science that somebody picked up. Only the press release it links to is from Stanford, which is normally what we think of as a respectable institution.

The basic idea is that tiny decreases in the radioactive decay rates of some isotopes have been observed. Presumably, these were statistically significant decreases, although I don't have details. One case of this seemed to correlate in time with a solar flare, and other cases seem to vary annually in ways that suggest that maybe, somehow, Solar neutrinos are interacting with these isotopes and influencing the decay rates.

I'm not going to believe this until I see strong evidence for it and until multiple groups have confirmed it. It would be cool if it were true, for it would tell us that neutrinos are interacting with other matter in ways that we didn't expect. But, for now, all I've been able to find are two papers (here and here). One is from a conference proceedings (and I've only seen the abstract); the other is a sort of response that has only been uploaded to the preprint server. In other words, as best I can tell, neither of these papers has yet been through any kind of peer review.

The latter paper— by Parkhomov, on the preprint server— has the full text available, although I have to admit I haven't read it. The abstract suggests, however, that he does not observe the effect mentioned in the conference proceedings.

So, we've got two papers: a conference proceedings, and a paper only uploaded to a preprint server, the latter contradicting the former. As such, I'm not going to get all excited about this until the paper trail gets a little bit more solid.

My prediction: this is going to go away and not turn out to be a real effect. But, I guess we should keep our eyes open in case it does turn out to be real. It would surprise the heck out of me if it were real, though.

6 responses so far

  • John McKay says:

    It doesn't matter if it turns out to be real. The press release (not the actual paper) is going to be cited for years as proof that carbon dating is a hoax and there really were dinosaurs on the ark.

  • Joseph says:

    I saw it through http://www.symmetrymagazine.org/breaking/2010/08/23/the-strange-case-of-solar-flares-and-radioactive-elements/

    Sad to hear that it's publication-by-press-release; I had thought it was interesting.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Isn't that the way it always is? There's this notion floating around in the general public that scientists are welded at the hip to the current theory and won't even consider something else.

    But every scientist I know is more like, "this is totally incompatible with what we know o f the Universe, so I doubt it will pan out. But if it does, that would be so awesome!"

  • Alex Besogonov says:

    Hm. I remember reading about an old USSR scientist that has discovered this effect (daily and monthly variations in decay rates) but was suppressed. I read about it 10 years ago, so my memory is a bit fuzzy.

    It would be awesome if this really leads to something new!

    Though most probably we'll find that it's caused by Earth's magnetic field modulating cosmic rays, which create radioactive isotopes of nitrogen affecting the detectors. Or something like that.

  • Aleks says:

    By the way, here is an actual paper about this, probably peer-reviewed, although I don't know anything "Astroparticle Physics": http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2010APh....34..121S

    There is a series of papers on ADS by Fischbach, Jenkins, Sturrock and others , all poorly cited, most of them in proceedings. Which seems to indicate that something is fishy here.

  • rknop says:

    Ah, Aleks, thanks! Your search-fu is better than mine. I think my problem was that I was searching for "radioactive decay" rather than "nuclear decay" when looking at ADS and arXiv. I bang myself on the head for that; yes, I should have expected the word "nuclear" rather than "radioactive" in physics papers.

    I'll try to follow the citation trail from here and say more about it.