Are neutrinos screwing with our clocks?

Jake Farr-Wharton 6 comments
Are neutrinos screwing with our clocks?

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.



Wednesday 8th September 2010 | 11:49 AM
119 total kudos

Jeeze Jake...for a second there I thought you were going to stand behind this neutrinos screwing with our clocks thing.

I was starting to run up the side of the "All things being relative" stance, and wonder about the size of these atoms and neutrinos, and just how much real effect they might have on each other. Of course, I was making the assumption that there were far fewer neutrinos in the mix than carbon atoms decaying. But then, what do I know?

You might want to offer your services here:

Good on ya' mate...


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Jake Farr-Wharton

Jake Farr-Wharton

Wednesday 8th September 2010 | 01:40 PM
202 total kudos

If you love physics as much as I do, one thing that will forever blow my mind:

Our sun (all stars) is powered by the E=MC2 reaction of exchanging hydrogen to helium. It is around 4.5-5 billion years old and has around 4.5-5 billion years worth of hydrogen fuel left until it runs out. When it (effectively) runs out of fuel, the mass will begin shrink and colapse in on its self until the mass, gravity and, essentially, friction create a temperature hot enough to burn helium. At this point, the sun will expand outwards (heat = size) then eventually burn away all but the core, a blue ball no bigger than the earth.

way cool.

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Henk V

Wednesday 8th September 2010 | 04:15 PM

Jake, your article and subsequent comment invalidate you from posting about science.

There have been a few papers that report variations in the half life of an isotope of Mn possibly due to variations in neutrino showers due to solar core and surface proposed differences in spin. Cosmics are a different thing, they arent solars and frankly, N-C is a big reaction in the neutron energy range. The slight variations in C12/C13/C14 ratios (atmospheric) are constantly being tightened as we get more and more samples to calibrate historical fluxes.

Leading in with neutrinos suggests you are looking for an excitation state difference that holds half life (and that is what the Mn experiments were looking for, as feeble as they are). N-C is just sky bashing. Otherwise, we would have so much galactic reference data out of emissions from rocks and concrete surrounding scintillation detector caves deep underground.
In such a case, nobody would have to put up with Lawrence Krauss' smug but astoundingly entertaining lectures.

The reason why creationists argue that C14 data is flawed is that the world was created in one hit and the speed of light must have been so very much faster during the period between the creation and the deluge. This is a "bolster sophistry" to support a unsupportable statement of anything but belief. is, seeing we dont evolve, where did we get the capability to respond to 600 to 400nm light?

Of course, if that were the case, god wouldnt be supernatural and black holes would all appear to be in the moons orbit. Which is pretty much close to the firmament and the biblical description of El.

Sadly, no black holes, no El, just vacuum cleaners and plasma screens....

When BIPM issues several publications on Mn transition and exitation states, then get excited Jake. Until then, those numbers are just the same sort of noise i used to get for Na, Co, Cs and Ba. I'm not saying the research is flawed, it just seems no way tight enough to a standard guy..



Wednesday 8th September 2010 | 07:06 PM
62 total kudos response to this comment by Jake Farr-Wharton. At this point, the sun will expand outwards (heat = size) then eventually burn away all but the core, a blue ball no bigger than the earth

When the Sun expands there will be no Earth to compare the blue ball too.

Will putting a paper bag over our heads help:)??????

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Jake Farr-Wharton

Jake Farr-Wharton

Wednesday 8th September 2010 | 07:12 PM
202 total kudos response to this comment by Henk V. Well, that was the point of the article.

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Henk V

Thursday 9th September 2010 | 02:36 AM

Surely you have some of your harem to supply the bag to.

we have gone ecological in Oz, saving paper and all that, we have to turn the lights off before sex. The libs do it just before cloning.

Strangely, four-play has always involved a good wood..

The greens? cold latte, not a hope in hell. Art students may vote green but being green comes in a paint tin.

I can't wait as they self destruct a la chip-o-crats in this term. Labor has given then a shining beacon.

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