Scientists as Stanford University has made an amazing discovery: The sun seems to be communicating with the Earth through radioactive isotopes. They are not yet sure how it’s done, but the radioactive decay of some elements sitting quietly in laboratories on Earth seems to be influenced by activities inside the sun – 93 million miles away!
“If the mystery particle is not a neutrino, it would have to be something we don’t know about; an unknown particle that is also emitted by the sun and has this effect, and that would be even more remarkable.”
Researchers have found an unusual linkage between solar flares and the inner life of radioactive elements on Earth, it has touched off a scientific detective investigation that could end up protecting the lives of space-walking astronauts and maybe rewriting some of the traditional assumptions of physics, the Standford University writes on its website.
It’s a mystery that presented itself unexpectedly: The radioactive decay of some elements sitting quietly in laboratories on Earth seemed to be influenced by activities inside the sun, 93 million miles away.
Researchers from Stanford and Purdue University believe it is. But their explanation of how it happens opens the door to yet another mystery.
There is even an outside chance that this unexpected effect is brought about by a previously unknown particle emitted by the sun.
“That would be truly remarkable,” Peter Sturrock, Stanford professor emeritus of applied physics and an expert on the inner workings of the sun, says in the article on Stanford University’s website.
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 and when doctors determine the proper dose of radioactivity to treat a cancer patient.
But that assumption was challenged in an unexpected way by a group of researchers from Purdue University who at the time were more interested in random numbers than nuclear decay.
(Scientists use long strings of random numbers for a variety of calculations, but they are difficult to produce, since the process used to produce the numbers has an influence on the outcome.)
Ephraim Fischbach, a physics professor at Purdue, was looking into the rate of radioactive decay of several isotopes as a possible source of random numbers generated without any human input. (A lump of radioactive cesium-137, for example, may decay at a steady rate overall, but individual atoms within the lump will decay in an unpredictable, random pattern.
On Dec 13, 2006, the sun itself provided a crucial clue, when a solar flare sent a stream of particles and radiation toward Earth.
Purdue nuclear engineer Jere Jenkins, while measuring the decay rate of manganese-54, a short-lived isotope used in medical diagnostics, noticed that the rate dropped slightly during the flare, a decrease that started about a day and a half before the flare.
If this apparent relationship between flares and decay rates proves true, it could lead to a method of predicting solar flares prior to their occurrence, which could help prevent damage to satellites and electric grids, as well as save the lives of astronauts in space.
The decay-rate aberrations that Jenkins noticed occurred during the middle of the night in Indiana – meaning that something produced by the sun had traveled all the way through the Earth to reach Jenkins’ detectors.
What could the flare send forth that could have such an effect?
Jenkins and Fischbach guessed that the culprits in this bit of decay-rate mischief were probably solar neutrinos, the almost weightless particles famous for flying at almost the speed of light through the physical world – humans, rocks, oceans or planets – with virtually no interaction with anything.
Then, in a series of papers published in Astroparticle Physics, Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research and Space Science Reviews, Jenkins, Fischbach and their colleagues showed that the observed variations in decay rates were highly unlikely to have come from environmental influences on the detection systems.
“It doesn’t make sense according to conventional ideas,” Fischbach says. Jenkins whimsically adds; “What we’re suggesting is that something that doesn’t really interact with anything is changing something that can’t be changed.”
“It’s an effect that no one yet understands,” Sturrock agrees. “Theorists are starting to say, ‘What’s going on?’ But that’s what the evidence points to. It’s a challenge for the physicists and a challenge for the solar people too.”
“If the mystery particle is not a neutrino, it would have to be something we don’t know about, an unknown particle that is also emitted by the sun and has this effect, and that would be even more remarkable,” Sturrock says.
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