From Stanford University News and
Magazine (The latter has a small but important correction—See the 1st comment and the response)
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.
Is this possible?
Researchers from Stanford and Purdue universities believe it is. But their explanation of how it
happens opens the door to yet another mystery.
Also discussed by Jeff Duntemann.
The article mentioned the decays Silicon-32 and Radium-226, as reported in Evidence
for Correlations Between Nuclear Decay Rates and Earth-Sun Distance back in 2008. Similarly,
Perturbation of Nuclear Decay Rates During the Solar Flare of 13 December 2006 indicated
a solar dependence on the decay of Manganese-54. The suggestion that radioactive decay rates might in some way depend on the sun is quite extraordinary, and has prompted the reanalysis
of a lot of data. Evidence against correlations between nuclear decay rates and Earth-Sun distance looked
at the decay of 6 other radioisotopes without seeing any such dependence. There is no obvious dependence on atomic weight or other systematic
difference between the elements.
There are different types of radioactive decay. Radium-226
decays by emitting an α particle (a Helium nucleus: 2 protons and 2 neutrons) while Silicon-32 is
a case of β decay (emission of an electron). Manganese-54 decays by electron capture, which is essentially time-reversed β decay.
α-decay is a manifestation of the
of the strong nuclear force, while β-decay is a
weak interaction. If the solar effect is real, then affects two differenct fundamental
forces of nature.
John G. Cramer, in Radioactive Decay and the Earth-Sun Distance suggested
…the Earth’s orbit has a very small eccentricity, so the annual variations in R [the Earth-Sun distance] are small.
A better way of testing whether radioactive decay rates depend directly on 1/R2 would be to monitor a radioactive decay
process within a space vehicle in a long elliptic orbit with a large eccentricity, so that R has a very large variation.
As it happens, NASA has a number of space probes that match this description, because many space probes, particularly those
that venture into the outer reaches of the Solar System, are powered by radioisotope-driven thermoelectric power sources containing
a strong radioactive decay source that produces enough energy as heat to power the vehicle. The power levels of such thermoelectric
generators are carefully monitored because they constitute the principal power source of the vehicle.
This has been done. According to Peter Cooper, in
Searching for modifications to the exponential radioactive decay law with the Cassini spacecraft
Data from the power output of the radioisotope thermoelectric generators aboard the Cassini spacecraft are used to
test the conjecture that small deviations observed in terrestrial measurements of the exponential radioactive decay law
are correlated with the Earth-Sun distance. No significant deviations from exponential decay are observed over a
range of 0.7 – 1.6 A.U. A 90% Cl upper limit of 0.84 x 10-4 is set on a term in the decay rate of
Pu-238 proportional to 1/R2 and 0.99 x 10-4 for a term proportional to 1/R.
Deep-space probes usually generate power from the heat emitted by a chunk of radioactive material-plutonium-238 for
the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini journeyed as close to the sun as Venus and then far back to Saturn, spanning a much wider
range of distances from the sun than Earth does during its yearly orbit. If the sun had an effect on plutonium decay, the
fluctuations would have been much more substantial than those seen in Earth-bound experiments. As a result, Cooper reasoned,
Cassini should have measured substantial changes in its generator’s output. It didn’t.
The Stanford/Symmetry article included something new. Peter Sturrock, Professor Emeritus of Applied Physics at Stanford,
suggested is that some of the variation in the Radium-226 and Silicon-32 decay rates is related
to solar rotation. From Evidence for Solar Influences on Nuclear Decay Rates
Recent reports of periodic fluctuations in nuclear decay data of certain isotopes have led to the suggestion that nuclear
decay rates are being influenced by the Sun, perhaps via neutrinos. Here we present evidence for the existence of an additional
periodicity that appears to be related to the Rieger periodicity well known in solar physics.
Links to the research reports can be found at Variability
of Nuclear Decay rates. Search for “Research papers: PERIODIC VARIATIONS: SCALE OF DAYS OR YEARS” and
“Research papers: NON-PERIODIC VARIATIONS:” Subheading “Of Cosmic Origin”. Thanks to arXiv.org information
about current research in physics is easily accessible.
Peter Sturrock was my first course advisor when I was a graduate student in his department at Stanford, 1972-1975. At one point there
I wanted to take a course in mathematical statistics. I was a little hesitant about this, since the subject is somewhat off the main direction of
graduate study in physics. To my surprise, Professor Sturrock strongly encouraged me to do so. Whatever the conclusion about the relationship
between the sun and radioactive decay may be, there will be a lot of statistical analysis along the way.