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Earth Space Science

Advance Warning System For Solar Flares Hinges On Surprising Hypothesis 199

Posted by Soulskill
from the correlates-with-bofh-laziness dept.
cylonlover writes "Scientists may have hit upon a new means of predicting solar flares more than a day in advance, which hinges on a hypothesis dating back to 2006 that solar activity affects the rate of decay of radioactive materials on Earth. Study of the phenomenon could lead to a new system which monitors changes in gamma radiation emitted from radioactive materials, and if the underlying hypothesis proves correct (abstract), this could lead to solar flare advance warning systems that would assist in the protection of satellites, power systems and astronauts."
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Advance Warning System For Solar Flares Hinges On Surprising Hypothesis

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  • But then (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Sulphur (1548251) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @03:36PM (#41000433)

    radioactive decay is not as random as we thought. So where do we get random numbers that are good?

    • Re:But then (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @03:40PM (#41000483)

      There's an enormous difference between the rate of decay, and predicting a decay. The observation is only the rate is effected, not the occurrence of an individual decay.

    • Re:But then (Score:5, Funny)

      by rwise2112 (648849) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @03:41PM (#41000501)

      radioactive decay is not as random as we thought. So where do we get random numbers that are good?

      Pentium processors?

    • by X0563511 (793323)

      Just because a flare makes it faster does not remove the entropy. It is still random.

      I'd be more concerned about atomic clocks and such.

      • Re:But then (Score:5, Informative)

        by Sique (173459) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @03:50PM (#41000609) Homepage

        Atomic clocks aren't based on radioactive decay. Just because they have "atom" in their name doesn't mean they are nuclear, e.g. based on a phenomenon in the atom core. Instead atomic clocks are based on the properties of the electron shells around the atom core.
        (Or to put it that way: atomic clocks are based on electromagnetics, not on the strong or the weak interaction.)

        • How about carbon dating then? I have no idea, just asking in case someone knows offhand.
          • by X0563511 (793323)

            I don't think it's precise enough to be effected by this, as flares are incidental and not a constant thing.

            • Thanks, yeah, you're probably right. After I posted I looked further down the thread and thought, Oh shit, everyone's going to think I'm a creationist nutjob,
          • by ceoyoyo (59147)

            IF the rate of radioactive decay changes with flare activity, which seems unlikely, then the rate we use for carbon dating is the average, which will work just fine over any reasonable timespan. Plus the effect is extremely small.

            • by skids (119237)

              However, a long term transient in the cause of the phenomena would indeed effect carbon dating -- and given the sun is the suspected source of this cause, a long term transient is very probable. Then the question is, by any significant amount? I'd assume this is a pretty tiny variation or it would have been rather evident to those first examining decay rates, so likely the effect would be pretty insignificant.

          • Re:But then (Score:5, Funny)

            by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @04:07PM (#41000823)

            How about carbon dating then? I have no idea, just asking in case someone knows offhand.

            Don't worry, you're not the only one here who doesn't how to date carbon, especially if nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen are also involved.

        • They use atoms, I believe that justifies the name Atomic.

    • RdRand

    • Re:But then (Score:5, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @04:41PM (#41001363)

      A planet much further away would be less effected by changes in the sun thanks to inverse square law. I suggest pulling random numbers out of uranus.

  • Rubbish (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Nothing can effect the rate of decay of radioactive materials; it is, has been, and always will be constant. Just like the carbon 12/14 balance.
    • A pretty bold statement considering how little time we've really understood radioactive materials enough to study them and how many new things we're still finding out about physics.

    • Re:Rubbish (Score:5, Informative)

      by Goaway (82658) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @03:44PM (#41000521) Homepage

      That is definitely not true. Radioactive decay through electron capture is well known to depend on external factors, including pressure and temperature. Inverse beta decay is an induced decay which depends entirely on an external neutrino flux, such as that from the sun.

    • Re:Rubbish (Score:5, Informative)

      by vlm (69642) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @03:46PM (#41000557)

      Nothing can effect the rate of decay of radioactive materials; it is, has been, and always will be constant. Just like the carbon 12/14 balance.

      Half right half wrong.

      Here's a whole section of crazy weird isotopes in crazy weird situations undergoing crazy weird decay modes that can be altered:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioactive_decay#Changing_decay_rates [wikipedia.org]

      So in general that half of the statement is wrong because there's a microscopic handful of really weird, pretty well understood outliers.

      On the other hand your very specific ref to carbon isotope decay rate is apparently correct. That's very well understood, heavily studied, trivially cheaply and repeatedly tested (nice short half lives, more or less).

      • by jeffmeden (135043)

        Nothing can effect the rate of decay of radioactive materials; it is, has been, and always will be constant. Just like the carbon 12/14 balance.

        Half right half wrong.

        Now that you've observed it, certainly you know if his post is dead or alive...

    • Oh, the arrogance of the AC.

      Nothing can effect the rate of decay of radioactive materials

      Uh huh. Want to bet your imaginary physics degree on that?

      Just observing [wikipedia.org] a particle (as I understand it; I may have it wrong) is enough to change its decay rate.

  • Harness (Score:4, Interesting)

    by SJHillman (1966756) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @03:38PM (#41000465)

    Is there any way we could harness the power of solar flares to provide energy (either for space-based installations or to beam back to Earth)? Now if we know when they're coming farther in advance, it seems we could better take advantage of them. Not a continuous stream of energy, to be sure, but it a boost every now and then could help take the load off other sources of energy.

    • Beaming anything back to earth would face the same transmission problems that space-based solar arrays would...and we haven't built one of those even though they could deliver much more reliable power.

    • by jeffmeden (135043)

      Is there any way we could harness the power of solar flares to provide energy (either for space-based installations or to beam back to Earth)? Now if we know when they're coming farther in advance, it seems we could better take advantage of them. Not a continuous stream of energy, to be sure, but it a boost every now and then could help take the load off other sources of energy.

      Sure, we just need a solar windmill about 10,000 miles in diameter, and a base to rest it on that doesnt cause enough gravity for it to collapse (so the moon is out). Crack that and yes the solar wind would be a pretty reliable source of energy.

      • by vlm (69642)

        Sure, we just need a solar windmill about 10,000 miles in diameter, and a base to rest it on that doesnt cause enough gravity for it to collapse (so the moon is out)

        Not necessarily. I love mega-engineering projects like placing a dam across the straits of Gibraltar and all that. If a flare is ionized particles I think you'd do a lot better to go elect eng instead of mech eng and make a peculiar array of wires and permanent magnets. Look at the work the MHD generator people have done and scale it to lower power. It would probably look like the worlds weirdest high gain HF shortwave antenna array. As a gut level guess it would have to be pretty freaking huge to powe

    • If you can build something on the scale of effectively harvesting a solar flair for energy, there are any number of easier, most consistent, more powerful (over the long run) sources that you could harvest instead. Your suggestion would be kind of like trying to power a military radio by absorbing the kinetic energy of bullets being fired at the soldier carrying it. Physically possible? Yeah, probably. But there are easier ways to solve the problem.

    • They are called solar panels, or more generally most of the life on earth.

    • Given that a single solar flare can "release 10% as much energy as the entire Sun, the equivalent of 10 billion one-megaton nuclear bombs" (Source: https://plus.google.com/108952536790629690817/posts/T7RU9pEe3nL ), I'd say this is out of our capacity to harness. However, if we could, considering that the world uses 474×10^18 joules of energy and a solar flare can release up to 6 × 10^25, we could power everything on the planet for the next hundred thousand years or so.

  • Not Eureka (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Relic of the Future (118669) <dales@NOsPaM.digitalfreaks.org> on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @03:40PM (#41000479)
    The greatest discoveries don't come from a "Eureka!", but from a "Huh, that's odd..." (Be careful though, the young earthers are already jumping on this to try and disprove carbon dating.)
    • by TexVex (669445)

      the young earthers are already jumping on this to try and disprove carbon dating

      Apparently the effect slows the rate of decay, meaning the isotopes are actually slightly older than estimated.

    • by Sique (173459)

      ... which is a quote from Isaac Asimov.

    • The greatest discoveries don't come from a "Eureka!", but from a "Huh, that's odd..."

      That's funny. I've often seen "Huh, that's odd" in lists of famous last statement. Well, I guess these two aren't exclusive.

  • Constant? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    If this is the case, then what does this mean for dating methods that depend on decay rates?

    • by CSMoran (1577071)
      It means a very, very low level of noise that then averages out to close to zero over the timescales involved.
    • by leuk_he (194174)

      Nothing. Nothing at all.

      The average decay rate is not really affected, since it is periodically. Also this effect is only measured in chlorine 36.

      the effect is larger than i expected, it is +/- 4%

      Carbon dating is NOT affected. It is based on the radioactivity in the athmosphere, which is not a constant over the years anyway. It is calibrated by counting year rings in tree's

  • by mdvolm (68424) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @03:40PM (#41000487) Homepage

    If the rate of radioactive decay can vary, how would this affect things like carbon 14 dating? Very interesting.

    • by Baloroth (2370816) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @03:50PM (#41000611)
      It depends. These phenomenon might be peculiar to the isotope in question (chlorine 36), could be insignificant entirely, or could average out over a long period of time to the established rate in any case. Decay rates are not entirely constant in every particle, either: ionization can affect the decay rate significantly. I think we'll have to wait until further research to really know for sure the complete implications of this discovery, or indeed if it is even true.
    • Ill pretend this theory isn't completely nuts and say that it wouldn't have a huge effect. The observed change is tiny. Far below the margin of error.

    • by vlm (69642)

      If the rate of radioactive decay can vary, how would this affect things like carbon 14 dating? Very interesting.

      The article is behind a paywall which really sucks for scientific progress. Naughty scientists, naughty, naughty. Stuck in the pre internet 80s are we?

      Anyway its a "percent or so" fluctuation with a power peak matching the decade or so long solar cycle. So if it applies to carbon exactly like it measured in chlorine (darn unlikely) you'll never be able to carbon date more accurately than, say 1% of the decade or so solar cycle or in other words about a month, at least on first principles. Its like there

      • by volsung (378)

        Just FYI: Nearly all physics articles from the last 15 years are posted in "preprint" form on the arXiv before submission to a journal. The arXiv is completely free, and is where nearly all physicists read papers from, rather than from the journals themselves.

        Just Google the title of the paper you are interested in, and you usually find the preprint version:

        http://arxiv.org/abs/1205.0205 [arxiv.org]

    • by riverat1 (1048260)

      If the rate of solar flaring has not changed significantly over the last 60,000 years* or so then it doesn't have much effect.

      *60,000 years being the approximate oldest useful dating from carbon 14.

  • by wisnoskij (1206448) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @03:43PM (#41000515) Homepage

    I always thought these were fairly constant, does this theory mess up any of our current Radiometric dating (and other similar) methods?
    Sure a few solar flares might not do much effect, but when we are talking hundreds of millions of years ago the sun might of been in a totally different state that caused different decays over long periods of time, than we previously thought.

    • by lannocc (568669)

      does this theory mess up any of our current Radiometric dating (and other similar) methods?

      I was wondering the same thing. Another reason for the Creationists to argue that the carbon-dating is all wrong and the Earth is young.

    • We have many different radiometric forms of dating that all agree well.

      It would require a perverse alteration to them all to keep agreeing with each other after all this time.

      Thats why we are so confident in the age of the earth. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_the_Earth [wikipedia.org]

      • Keyword: Radiometric.
        If some external force changes the rate of decay of all radioactive material, like this summery says, then they all very well might agree and still be off.

        • If some atoms decay at rate X and others at rate Y but have all been altered by different amounts by a constant influence so they happen to give the same values. That is what I consider perverse.

          Either they are reliable because of the multiple multiple lines of agreement or there is a god playing tricks with us. The other option is terribly bad luck but the odds of that happening are so tiny its not worth considering.

    • I always thought these were fairly constant, does this theory mess up any of our current Radiometric dating (and other similar) methods?

      Well, No: Considering the predictability is consistently of random accuracy in any form of dating, be it Radiometric, Electronic, Speed, Blind, or chance reliant encounters. They might have a statistically significant effect on dating if the solar flares dramatically affect hormone or pheromone production.

      In my experience the Moon is a much better indicator of whether dating will be "successful"...

    • Depends on if you assume solar activity has been relatively consistent over time. If solar activity has decreased or increased substantially over time, then radioactive dating could be wrong. If solar activity has been relatively stable over the last million years, then dates within that period are probably pretty good. Even a mathematician can see that.

  • by tantrum (261762) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @03:51PM (#41000623)

    I recall reading about this here on slashdot several years ago (guessing '96), and thought that it was disproved not lang after. I might be wrong though

    • by tantrum (261762)

      I recall reading about this here on slashdot several years ago (guessing '96), and thought that it was disproved not lang after. I might be wrong though

      :%s/96/06/gc

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        > :%s/96/06/gc

        Bah. You don't need to touch the whole file. You don't need to replace the 6 with a 6. There's no case to be concerned with, and there's no point to confirm a single change.

        0f9r0. Or just f9r0 if your cursor is before the 9, or F9r0 if it's behind it. Don't over complicate things. And if you're anal enough to post a regex invocation specific to an application, post the fastest way to make the change instead.

  • So has there been any research done outside of this JH Jenkins guy and his crew at Purdue? Has this hypothesis been tested and proven elsewhere in this world? I can't find any other publishers: http://tinyurl.com/d4bjfbx [tinyurl.com] (A link to a search of published papers using "Solar Radioactive Decay" as the search criteria. All on-topic papers come from JH Jenkins and crew)
    • by vlm (69642)

      So has there been any research done outside of this JH Jenkins guy and his crew at Purdue? Has this hypothesis been tested and proven elsewhere in this world? I can't find any other publishers...

      http://arxiv.org/abs/0810.3265 [arxiv.org]

      (no this isn't an arxiv equivalent of a rickroll on my honor as a 5 digit /. uid. However, if someone can find the arxiv equivalent of a rickroll I'll be indebted to them.)

      Aside from this individual example, obviously see the references at the end of the paper.

      • by vlm (69642)

        oh and another good one.

        http://arxiv.org/abs/1205.7015 [arxiv.org]

        Once again, its a cool paper all by itself, and slightly (only slightly) off your topic, but the real gold mine, for you, will probably be the reference list at the end of the paper.

        Its an interesting topic because its fun to think of how to build the experimental apparatus, possible sources of error and how to work around... Its almost as much fun as that "anomalous gravitational force" that ended up not existing. I'm just barely not old enough to hav

      • by ceoyoyo (59147)

        One of the references from that preprint is particularly enlightening:

        http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0969804397100823 [sciencedirect.com]

        They measured radon decay (which dispenses with the explanation that not all isotopes are the same) over twenty years. They saw a seasonal variation, just like Jenkins does. But when they measured the ratio of radon decay with europium decay, the variation went away. It turned out their detector also had a seasonal variation.

        The paper cited in the summary shows they do h

      • by ceoyoyo (59147)

        PS - the arxiv equivalent of a rickroll:

        http://arxiv.org/pdf/0707.1618.pdf [arxiv.org]

  • I call shenanigans (Score:2, Informative)

    by PvtVoid (1252388)
    This has to be either a systematic or a fluke. The only thing that could conceivably have an influence on nuclear decay rates is the neutrino flux, which would not show the diurnal variations that they claim, and which furthermore would be completely uncorrelated with solar flares, since neutrinos propagate at the speed of light from the solar core through the envelope, while thermal effects take millenia [wikipedia.org] to propagate.

    The paper on the effect is in a peer-reviewed journal, and the authors do not appear t
    • I call politics (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Okian Warrior (537106) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @04:09PM (#41000853) Homepage Journal

      This has to be either a systematic or a fluke. The only thing that could conceivably have an influence on nuclear decay rates is...

      Okay, wait.

      This guy has evidence which your model doesn't account for. You're saying that the evidence can't be right because it isn't accounted for by your model?

      That's not science, that's politics.

      If he's got evidence, either counter with your own evidence or show that his evidence is fabricated.

      Try actually being a scientist, instead of pretending to act like one.

      • by Velex (120469)

        Since I can't mod this discussion anymore having made a similar comment myself to another internet tough guy, will somebody please mod the parent up?

        You're spot on. It's called science. It works best when somebody turns out to be wrong (or at least not quite correct). Whoever is modding up these internet tough guys needs to read some Sagan or something and get a clue.

      • Re:I call politics (Score:4, Insightful)

        by PvtVoid (1252388) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @04:22PM (#41001063)

        Okay, wait.

        This guy has evidence which your model doesn't account for. You're saying that the evidence can't be right because it isn't accounted for by your model?

        That's not science, that's politics.

        If he's got evidence, either counter with your own evidence or show that his evidence is fabricated.

        Try actually being a scientist, instead of pretending to act like one.

        I'm saying I am very skeptical of the "evidence" because it makes no fucking sense at all. Anybody can find statistically significant, completely spurious correlations when given a large-enough mass of data. Would you also suggest that I take these guys [princeton.edu] seriously?

        I never said that the Purdue people shouldn't publish their result. Their paper simply notes a correlation. They don't claim to know why there is a correlation, and there could be many explanations. That's science. The most likely explanation is that the effect is a systematic. I say this because I know many other well-verified facts about how the world works, and this purported correlation is in conflict with all of these things. That's also science. Uncritically accepting one piece of data and therefore throwing out a century of scientific knowledge is not being a scientist. It's being a nutjob.

      • Re:I call politics (Score:4, Informative)

        by arse maker (1058608) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @04:28PM (#41001163)

        There are many nonsupporting papers for this.

        http://arxiv.org/abs/1006.5071 [arxiv.org] (there are many more but you can find yourself if you are interested)

        If it was replicated easily then it would be a cause for a rethink but its not. It would also require new physics to explain and that by itself requires the strongest rigor before being accepted.

      • by ceoyoyo (59147)

        He doesn't have evidence, or at least he hasn't presented it. His papers don't have any stats, or even error bars.

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      The paper has zero statistics, and zero error bars. I'm not sure how it got published in a peer reviewed journal.

  • I've been following this topic for a couple of years. Variation of radioactive decay has been noticed and reported by Jere Jenkins et al before.

    In all cases, the results have been panned by the physics community as unlikely, not fitting with the current model, or failing to match with other measurements. The overall conclusion in each of these papers has been: "it can't be correct because it doesn't fit within our model".

    The theory was disproved by analysis, not disproved by abundance of data.

    Measuring radi

    • Re:It's about time (Score:4, Insightful)

      by arse maker (1058608) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @04:08PM (#41000845)

      Non replicable data also not really science.

      There is no lack of people who would look into this, and to be sure many top people have. There have been many people coming forward since to show data that doesn't exhibit this pattern. Thats a huge problem.

      The burden of proof is on the claimant and its far from proven.

      • There is no lack of people who would look into this, and to be sure many top people have...

        And yet, not one of the people who looked into it actually took the time to collect evidence.

        (Can you post a link to a paper which disproves this based on collected data?)

        Interesting how calling a data set "non replicable" is seen as good science, while replicating the data (which is what the current paper purports to do) is "not really good science".

        • Indeed I can.

          http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0370269312002341 [sciencedirect.com]

          from the article itself.

          It looks very much like an experimental error. The fact they didn't use a multichannel analyser to look at the energy of the signal makes it very hard to exclude background signal (like from the sun, a massive radiation source).

          They didn't even use much of a lead shield - 5mm, which is hardly anything for higher energy photons.

          • Thank you! That's an excellent counter-argument.

            A quick look at the linked paper shows that they have covered all the bases - temperature, pressure, background radiation, radon, and so on. Their analysis appears to be spot-on, but at the same time I hope that they continue the experiment in order to really pound the last nail in the coffin.

            From that same article:

            Some of the measurements and analysis conrm the existence of oscillations [6, 7] whereas others contradict this hypothesis [8, 9, 10].

            Note that this paper is fairly recent (published at the end of March) and is only one such paper which notes the caveats mentioned in the quote abo

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      You haven't been following it very well then. There are other datasets that don't show the variation Jenkins et al see. Plus their habit of writing papers that don't include any statistics OR error bars means their hypothesis (it's definitely not a theory - they don't offer any explanatory or predictive ability at all) is poorly supported in the first place.

      The overall conclusion is "extraordinary claims, particularly those in opposition to both theory AND many other experiments, require extraordinary evi

  • by Antipater (2053064) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @03:59PM (#41000749)
    Researchers at Purdue are busy creating early-warning earthquake detectors based around when their dogs all start acting weird.
  • If decay rates are variable, how does this affect radioactive carbon dating methods? Are all dates derived from this method now suspect?
  • I don't understand it is not like we can't produce neutrinos in large quantities on demand.

    Wouldn't we notice changes in decay rates by placing the same objects next to a reactor and observing a change? There must be a million different ways to investigate these claims.

    For something seemingly this extraordinary the silence and general lack of interest is deafening.

  • by PiMuNu (865592) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @07:32AM (#41008521)

    This is just wrong.

    There are many thousands of physicists who study neutrino flux from the sun every day. They typically use several 1000 tonnes detectors looking for interaction such as inverse beta decay and they see ~ 1 neutrino interaction per day. Try googling for Super Kamiokande, Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, ...

    The solar neutrino flux is generated from nuclear reactions in the core of the sun. Solar flares are generated by magnetic effects at the sun's surface. These two phenomena are almost completely unrelated.

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