Is the sun screwing up carbon dating?

I have a feeling the creationist are going to run with this one, and we are going to see this article popping up for years to come.

The media is reporting that the sun maybe emitting a mystery particle that is breaking the laws of known physics, specifically, the laws that govern radioactive decay. Radioactive decay is the process when an atomic nucleus loses energy by giving off radiation and transforms into a different type of atom. A common example is carbon-14 emitting radiation and transforming into nitrogen-14. Different atoms decay at different rates, but those rates are all constant. For instance, the half-life of carbon-14 is 5730 years. This means that if you have a sample of carbon-14, in 5730 years half of it will have decayed into nitrogen-14. By measuring this ratio of carbon, we can accurately date organic samples. This is the technique called carbon dating.

According to MSNBC:

But what if a well-known — and apparently constant — characteristic of matter starts behaving mysteriously?

This is exactly what has been noticed in recent years; the decay rates of radioactive elements are changing. This is especially mysterious as we are talking about elements with "constant" decay rates — these values aren't supposed to change, school textbooks teach us this from an early age.

This is the conclusion that researchers from Stanford and Purdue University have arrived at, but the only explanation they have is even weirder than the phenomenon itself: the sun might be emitting a previously unknown particle that is meddling with the decay rates of matter. Or, at the very least, we are seeing some new physics.

The study by researchers Jere Jenkins and Ephraim Fischbach of Purdue, and Peter Sturrock of Stanford, compared their measurements with the decay rates published by other researchers. They found that not only were the radioactive decay rates not constant...

but they'd vary with the seasons. Decay rates would slightly decrease during the summer and increase during the winter.

Experimental error and environmental conditions have all been ruled out — the decay rates are changing throughout the year in a predictable pattern. And there seems to be only one answer.

That the sun was influencing the decay rates as the earth travelled along its elliptical orbit. Not only that, the scientists observed a drop in the decay rate of manganese-54 just before a large solar flare erupted on the sun in 2006.

The sun link was made even stronger when Peter Sturrock, Stanford professor emeritus of applied physics, suggested that the Purdue scientists look for other recurring patterns in decay rates. As an expert of the inner workings of the sun, Sturrock had a hunch that solar neutrinos might hold the key to this mystery.

Sure enough, the researchers noticed the decay rates vary repeatedly every 33 days — a period of time that matches the rotational period of the core of the sun. The solar core is the source of solar neutrinos.

If this is true, and the rates of radioactive decay can vary through solar activity, it will be much harder to accurately date archaeological objects. While the rate of change is slight, and I'm sure it would only increase the error rate a few percent, I'm sure that the creationist will use this as another wedge to discredit carbon dating. If they can imply that carbon dating is flawed and inaccurate, they can then fill that uncertainty with the idea that the earth is only 6,000 years old.

But they can only claim that if this study turns out to be correct. Many scientists are skeptical. In an article for Discover, Gregory Sullivan, professor and associate chair of physics at the University of Maryland, said,

"My gut reaction is one of skepticism.” The idea isn’t impossible, he says, but you can’t accept a solution as radical as the new study’s with just the small data set the researchers have. “Data is data. That’s the final arbiter. But the more one has to bend [well-establish physics], the evidence has to be that much more scrutinized.”

He had several reasons for his skepticism:

Many of the tiny variations that the study authors saw in radioactive decay rates came from labs like Brookhaven National Lab—the researchers didn’t take the readings themselves. And, Sullivan says, some are multiple decades old. In their paper, Fischbach’s team takes care to try to rule out variations in the equipment or environmental conditions that could have caused the weird changes they saw in decay rates. But, Sullivan says, “they’re people 30 years later [studying] equipment they weren’t running. I don’t think they rule it out.”

The Purdue-Stanford team cites an example of a 2006 solar flare, saying that they saw a dip in decay rates in a manganese isotope before the occurrence that lasted until after it was gone. Sullivan, however, says he isn’t convinced this is experimentally significant, and anyway it doesn’t make sense: Solar neutrinos emanate from the interior of the sun—not the surface, where flares emerge. Moreover, he says, other solar events like x-ray flares didn’t have the same effect.

If it were true, the idea would represent a huge jump in neutrino physics. At the Super-Kamiokande detector, Sullivan says only about 10 neutrinos per day appeared to interact with the 20 kilotons of water. Sullivan says the Purdue-Stanford team is proposing that neutrinos are powerfully interacting with matter in a way that has never before been observed. “They’re looking for something with a very much larger effect than the force of neutrinos, but that doesn’t show up any other way,” he says.

While the scientists at Purdue and Stanford could have made a huge discovery, they could have just as easily misunderstood the data or have come to a wrong conclusion by comparing different data sets. The only way to tell is a lot more testing in more carefully controlled experiments to either verify or falsify the idea.


  1. Out of curiosity, I pulled the original report that all this media hype derives from, which can be found here:
    Click on the 'PDF' link on the right to get a printable version.

    From a quick read-through, this proceedings report (meaning it's some student's abstract for a meeting) is all about looking for correlations in old data. This is safe to completely ignore until someone does a real study with experimental controls.

  2. I really hope this ends up being true. It would be a profound insight into physics. I don't think it'll be dating up at all. With some further research, I found that the effect is only about .1%. So that is only off by one year out of a thousand. Plus the effect is cyclical, so everything should average out to the mean.

    It would be amazing if its right. Like the researchers said:

    “What we’re suggesting is that something that doesn’t really interact with anything is changing something that can’t be changed.”