All Relative

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Radioactive decay rates, thought to be unique physical constants and counted on in such fields as medicine and anthropology, may be more variable than once thought.

A team of scientists from Purdue and Stanford universities has found that the decay of radioactive isotopes fluctuates in synch with the rotation of the sun’s core.

The fluctuations appear to be very small but could lead to predictive tools for solar flares and may have an impact on medical radiation treatments.

This adds to evidence of swings in decay rates in response to solar activity and the distance between the Earth and the sun that Purdue researchers Ephraim Fischbach, a professor of physics, and Jere Jenkins, a nuclear engineer, have been gathering for the last four years. The Purdue team previously reported observing a drop in the rate of decay that began a day and half before and peaked during the December 2006 solar flare and an annual fluctuation that appeared to be based on the Earth’s orbit of, and changing distance from, the sun, Jenkins said.

So… Go read the rest of the story. And then reflect on this: all kinds of things in our human-industrial world depend on rates of radioactive decay. Atomic clocks, and the underlying definition of the millisecond, the second, the minute and the hour. The theoretical length of the angstrom and the micron and the meter.

Which means that these things — these theoretical measurements of space and time — are variable. Not hugely so, perhaps not at scales that we care about, but nonetheless variable. They vary in correspondence with the slow, beating heart of the Sun.

“Now wait a minute…” you must be thinking to yourself.

And I say, sure, I’ll wait a minute. But I have to ask…

How, long, exactly, is that?

We tend to assume that the mechanics of Newtonian gravity apply to the solar system; that the mechanics of deep space are rooted in Einstein’s relativity; and that quantum mechanics apply at the realms of the subatomic; while we enjoy life in a world governed by the strong anthropic principle — where everything seems to exist for our benefit, happiness or occasional inconvenience or crisis.

But the truth is, it’s happening now. All of it. Everything. As the Emerald Tablet of the 1st century BC said, “that which is below is as that which is above; and that which is above is as that which is below: it is all One Thing.”

Location:Williams St,Williamsburg,United States


  1. Thanks for the info. I find that you’re right.

    And yet… didn’t they use to run on atomic radiation? I distinctly recall a physics teacher of mine saying this in school — can’t remember if it was Mr. M, Mr. G, or Mr. H, though…

    Mr. G once said that his Japanese boss told him, “I can only remember five things a day. When you report to me, please make sure you give me true things to remember, and not false ones.”

    So now I have two true things to remember — that atomic clocks rely on the vibrations of non-radioactive cesium crystals, and that radioactivity is a randomly non-constant constant.

  2. Mr. Watt,

    Atomic clocks do not use radioactive decay for time, because radioactive decay is random. Atomic clocks use the frequency generated by non-radioactive cesium crystals.

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