Falling to pieces

>> Saturday, August 30, 2008

Here's an interesting tidbit: scientists at Purdue University are suggesting that nuclear decay rates on Earth may vary with the planet's distance from the sun. Apparently, after years of measuring radioactive decay in silicon-32 and radium-226, they've been able to measure a noticeable difference in decay rates that they've been able to correlate with Earth's annual orbit.

They don't seem to have an explanation for the phenomena: several hypotheses present themselves, including neutrino flux. It should be interesting to see where this goes.

I suppose there's some added interest to me because of something I tend to say in response to creationist arguments: that science is of one piece, and that young-Earth creationist-types (YECers) will insist the world was invented around 6,000 years ago but don't seem bothered by what this means for fission reactors and atomic triggers in nuclear weapons--if atomic decay doesn't work the way we think it does, it invalidates carbon-dating and atom bombs. The Purdue work, obviously, suggests that atomic decay doesn't work quite like we thought we thunk it. And it seems likely that YECers will seize on this work as evidence to support their views.

Of course, they'll miss a few things when they do so.

First, they'll miss the fact that a challenge is not an alternative; that is, even if further research shows that nuclear decay rates are in constant flux, that only tells us that atomic decay may be an unreliable indicator of age in fossils and geologic formations. A complete unraveling of carbon-14 dating methodologies wouldn't prove the universe was created, nor would it have any relevance to astronomical evidence suggesting a vast age for the rest of the universe.

Second, there's a question at this time as to whether any correlation is causal. Some posters at the arXiv posting note that there may be observational discrepancies such as relativistic effects as the Earth's orbital velocity changes over the course of a year. (For those who have forgotten their Kepler: Kepler's Second Law tells us that a line between a planet and sun sweeps equal areas over equal time--i.e. that a planet moves faster the nearer it is to its parent star.) Other suggested observational artifacts that will have to be eliminated include matters such as seasonal temperature variances.

Third, if there is a causal correlation (and there are reasonable objections to a causal correlation mentioned at arXiv, including consistent output by the power sources of our interplanetary probes as they move farther or closer to the sun per their mission objectives and trajectories), the YECers would be obliged to show that a mechanism is relevant. That is to say, for instance, if it should turn out that radioactive decay is inhibited or sped by, say, neutrino flow from the sun, surely the YECers would need to show some evidence of historic increase or decrease of neutrinos for a young-Earth claim to have any merit. (This is something of a restatement of the first point in some regards--the first point being that it's not enough to nitpick and the third point being that you have to show your work in producing a viable alternative.)

All that aside, it's an interesting development if true.


vince Saturday, August 30, 2008 at 1:12:00 PM EDT  

I think it's very interesting. And I'm glad you (and they) pointed out there are several reasons for these observations, and further that correlation is not causation, something far to many people without some science and math background seem not to understand.

vince Saturday, August 30, 2008 at 1:13:00 PM EDT  

Uh, that was supposed to be "there may be several reasons" not "there are several reasons." I really have to start proofreading before publishing.

MWT Saturday, August 30, 2008 at 6:44:00 PM EDT  


First question on my mind is how do they vary? Is there a steady linear increase or decrease over time? Or, as I'm suspecting, more of a cycle where it's an increased rate part of the year and a decreased rate the other part?

If the latter, then it becomes a question of resolution. If we're trying to measure the age of something that's positively ancient, does it matter if the rate has an annual fluctuation? Or can the overall average be applied with no decrease in accuracy?

John the Scientist Saturday, August 30, 2008 at 9:33:00 PM EDT  

"suggests that atomic decay doesn't work quite like we thought we thunk it. "

But it does not change the timeline, it only changes the error bars around the timeline.

Eric Saturday, August 30, 2008 at 11:34:00 PM EDT  

The degree to which this modifies or invalidates carbon dating depends in part on the answer to MWT's question. If it's a cyclical increase/decrease, then it would seem the overall average remains.

If this is an objective variance in radioactive decay, it could do more than change the margin of error, which was my initial thought, as well. But as I was writing the blog entry it occurred to me that any objective changes would throw into question many of our assumptions--i.e., if radioactive decay is faster in one season than in another, how do we know it wasn't faster still in an earlier year or age?

I suspect, however, that the Purdue observations will prove to be subjective results--probably relativistic: it seems to me that the "probes argument" is a pretty firm strike against objective changes. If radioactive decay is affected by stellar distance, why aren't we seeing unpredicted power surges or drops in the telemetry data from the Voyagers, Cassini, Ulysses, et al. as they slingshot past the sun or continue their endless journeys into infinite night? A simpler explanation would be that there's something affecting observations, as opposed to something affecting the process itself.

All of which should be taken with a salt lick--no, a salt mine coming from me: IANANP.

Should it prove to be an objective phenomena, the YECers still can't explain red shift without postulating that God lies, so I think the estimated age of the universe remains within the established error bars.

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