Remember your high school chemistry class where the Periodic Table of Elements hung on the wall? Memorizing Mg is magnesium, and Si was silicon, probably bored you. These elements however, are what make up all matter of life on earth.
It may still bore you, but it fascinates scientists who are constantly making new discoveries about these elements that ultimately affect our lives. Such was the case of a recent discovery that may rock the scientific world as reported by Dan Stober in Stanford University News.
It all started with the radioactive decay of certain elements in labs that seemed affected by the sun. The elements were in labs on earth. The sun of course is 93 million miles away. How can something 93 million miles away affect something like an element, such as carbon-14, that is tucked away in a lab somewhere?
Impossible? Maybe not–and if it’s proven, it could turn physics as we know it on its head. Researchers from Purdue University are looking into this puzzling mystery as it could have an unprecedented effect on many things, including carbon dating. The rate of decay is the issue at hand. It has always been considered a “constant” in physics. Constant is like one plus one equals two–never changing.
“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”, said Stober.
What started out as an experiment having to do with random numbers, turned up a surprising inconsistency that appeared in scientific data. This discovery turned the experiment towards a different focus–the rate of decay.
Stober continued explaining that, “as the researchers poured through published data on specific isotopes, they found disagreement in the measured decay rates – odd for supposed physical constants.”
According to Stober, this discovery has mystified Ephraim Fischbach, a physics professor at Purdue who was working on the random numbers experiment. Purdue nuclear engineer Jere Jenkins provided a clue to what was going on when, in 2006 during a solar flare, the rate of decay for manganese-54 increased slightly during an experiment Jenkins was working on at the time.
The speculation isn’t only over the fact that there seems to be a different rate of decay, it is also focused on what is causing the inconsistency. Some say it is due to a neutrino–a particle that travels near the speed of light. “Most neutrinos passing through the Earth emanate from the Sun, and more than 50 trillion solar neutrinos pass through an average-sized human body every second,” according to Wikipedia. This is something that is not felt, affected, or experienced by us.
” ‘It doesn’t make sense according to conventional ideas,’ Fischbach said. Jenkins whimsically added, ‘What we’re suggesting is that something that doesn’t really interact with anything is changing something that can’t be changed,’ ” as reported by Stober.
While still unsure what is causing the change–the previously held scientific belief that the rate of decay is constant may not be true. This discovery certainly seems to challenge that theory. The implications can have far reaching affects not only in science and medicine, but also history and archeology among other things.
One interesting impact of this discovery may be on an age old debate as to how old our earth is. If the rate of decay is no longer a constant, the age of earth may be subject to reevaluation based on past radiometric dating methods and this new discovery that decay may no longer be constant.