Are neutrinos screwing with our clocks?Jake Farr-Wharton 6 comments
Neutrinos are creepy-awesome particles! Solar neutrinos are created in the core of stars as the result of nuclear fusion of Hydrogen atoms into Helium, or when ‘cosmic rays’ hit particles other solid mater. They are largely incorporeal and thus are able to pass through mater, largely without any effect.
A recent study and subsequent discovery by Professor Peter Sturrock of Stanford University, however suggests that Solar Neutrinos may be influencing various radioactive elements on the earth, causing them to decay faster at certain times of the year (seasonal). The implications of this are fairly far reaching; however the facet this article will focus on is the implication to radioactive dating.
When reporting on the age of something, such as the mummified corpse of an ancient pharaoh, scientists will look for the amount of Carbon 14 present. It is the by-product of atmospheric Nitrogen 14, being hit by cosmic rays causing it to gain a Neutron (8) and lose a Proton (6).
The radioactive Carbon 14 combines with Oxygen to form radioactive CO2, which is absorbed by plants through photosynthesis, and then ingested by animals. So every living thing is constantly ‘absorbing’ Carbon 14 throughout it’s life. Once dead, the absorbtion stops, and the amount of Carbon 14 gradually decreases through radioactive decay with a half-life of 5,730±40 years. Testing for the amount of 14C will give an acurate age of our mummified pharaoh ± 1%. This process is called, as you may have guessed, radiocarbon dating.
Different isotopes (or clocks) with a much slower decay, can be used to date much older specimens, such as the fossils of Jurassic, Cambrian and Devonian era flora and fauna with the same ± 1% accuracy. Rubidium/strontium, thorium/lead, potassium/argon, argon/argon, or uranium/lead, are all used in fossil dating as they have very long half-lives. These range from 0.7 to 48.6 billion years. Subtle differences in the relative proportions of the two isotopes can give good dates for rocks of any age.
The fossil record is fundamental to an understanding of evolution. Fossils document the order of appearance of groups and they tell us about some of the amazing plants and animals that died out long ago. Age estimates can be cross-tested by using different isotope pairs. Results from different techniques, often measured in rival labs, continually confirm each other. As such, there is no reason to doubt the accuracy broad timescales provided by the dating methods.
Or are there?
As mentioned above, because of the largely intangible nature of solar neutrinos, they really do not interact with anything, and can quite harmlessly pass through the entire earth (as they do, every day) without consequence – unless you believe the movie 2012… and you shouldn’t. Scientists currently detect neutrons by placing giant vats of Gallium Chloride deep underground (depth is required to filter out other erroneous particles) and watch with an x-laser as they change they rob the vat of protons to make Germanium. With this experiment, we know that neutrinos can have some influences, though this is largely benign.
So the question is, does the ‘new understanding*’ that neutrinos can/may effect the rate of decay of radioactive isotopes effect the dates of previously reported fossils?
The study found that the effect was seasonal, so while some seasons may see a ‘faster’ decay, the rest of the seasons would have a ‘slower’ rate of decay. Thus, the net effect is actually no different.
This effectively means that those creationists who have reported that these findings completely invalidate all previous radioactive dating, are completely incorrect.
While our ability to fine-tune the time-scales as our technology and understanding gains momentum, new or refined information does not invalidate old information. Unless, of course, you’re talking about the myth of creationism, which is indeed invalidated by the fossil record, the geological record and thus radiometric dating.
*Study has not been replicated, or verified.