Radiodecay rates

[...]When John L. Anderson and George W. Spangler, of the University of Tennessee, demonstrated some 20 years ago (1974) that the Poisson distribution in the decay rate of radiocarbon could be altered by impressing +90 volts across a monolayer, the late inventor of the radiocarbon dating technique, Nobelist Willard Libby, was aghast that environmental influences could have such an effect. And there have been a fair number of other examples in the literature which have not been given very much publicity, and understandably so. Imagine the unique if not unsolvable problem of determining the time for which an atomic clock is set prior to its having been reset.

To explain: Consider that Earth might have a negative electrostatic potential of something like 10 million volts. If, perchance, some cosmic event reduced this potential by about one million volts, it could have a profound effect on radiodecay rates. There is a voltage gradient surrounding the potential well of the nucleus of an atom, and the zero, or ground, voltage is the electrostatic potential of the environment, considered to be that of the charge on the Earth itself. If this charge were reduced by that ten percent--the one million volts--then, for a specific example, the 4.5-billion-year radiodecay halflife of uranium might be reduced to mere minutes or possibly even seconds, not to mention all the other radionuclides, and up to and including a number of so-called stable elements. For in my book, there are no stable elements, just those with unmeasurably long halflives.

If such an event took place, however briefly, our atomic clocks could be reset to a new time. The number of extinctions and mutations and other subsequent effects would be incalculable on whole genera of taxonomic plants and organisms. The surviving quantitative chemist would have the exciting task of recalculating all of the atomic masses because of the redistribution of the isotopes.
[...]There was an event about 65 million years ago, which according to the late Luis Alvarez and his colleagues at UC Berkeley, brought the Mesozoic period to an end. This event is postulated as a sizeable asteroid which struck the Earth and brought about the extinction of the dinosaurs, including innumerable other animals down to a weight of 50 lbs. or less. If this asteroid carried an electrostatic potential which even fractionally altered that of Earth, or else caused the Earth to lose part of its charge to space, then we could expect a corresponding change in radiodecay rates. This event was the last of the five major known catastrophes which have affected the geological history of Earth. What perchance do we do with the 4.6-billion-year history of the Earth which is based on radiodecay rates? We create more myths.

[...] In 1931 Fernando Sanford of Stanford University wrote in his book, Terrestrial Electricity, about electrical charges he believed to exist on both the Earth and the Sun, and discussed stable groupings of charged atomic particles--electrons and protons--and how their various combinations would lead to certain instabilities. At the time neutrons were unknown, albeit suspected, having been finally discovered a year later, in 1932, by James Chadwick of Cambridge, for which he received the Nobel Prize.

Sanford, himself, thought that the most stable combinations of atomic particles would also be the most numerous, which in today's parlance means that of the various combinations of protons and neutrons in atomic nuclei only a limited number would be long-lived and stable. We are fully aware of this now and consider it mundanely obvious and self-evident, but in Sanford's day this was an advanced and radical idea. In terms of numbers, a quick run-down through a recent copy of the Table of Isotopes shows that out of some two thousand-odd isotopic combinations of the 110 known chemical elements most are radioactive and only some 273 stable isotopes exist with which to build a world.

Nevertheless, a rigorous study of the stable isotopes gives one the feeling that, given enough eons of time, even these will eventually decay and return to the energy state from which they came, or at least arrive at some equilibrium between free-energy and its condensed form, matter. As I'd said earlier, by some great leap of faith, there are no stable elements. I'd venture to say that we're a long, long way from any such kind of equilibrium. But, even at our present position in time and space during this ages old process we have relied far too heavily and for far too long on the dictum: Everything is as it was.

Robert Gentry of Oak Ridge National Labs, a geochemist specializing in "radiohalo" dating techniques. After a protracted study of these halos, which he said "provide the only means for studying the radioactive transformation of elements" in Earth's history, Gentry was led during the mid-1960s to ask in retrospect: Can the Earth's age be measured by radioactive dating of its rocks? Was the Earth actually as old as the universe? Were the Earth's elements in fact synthesized in some gigantic primeval nuclear event?

It was around the turn of the century, for example, that the age of the Earth was put on a more quantitative basis with the theoretical explanation of pleochroic halos. Also known as radiohalos, these colored microscopic rings are found in many minerals, and are caused by the disintegration of radioactive elements with the emission of alpha particles (helium nuclei), forming minuscule concentric circles around these radiodecay sites through each decay stage. Early studies indicated that the respective sizes of these tiny rings were an indication of the respective ages of the minerals, but later work showed that varying-sized halos surrounding many uranium-decay sites seemed to indicate varying decay rates throughout Earth's history.

However, this finding was suppressed, because as every good scientist knew radiodecay rates were inviolably constant [...] and then, of course, radiohalos were henceforth used as added proof of the extreme age of the Earth. [...] Gentry's questioning of the different sized halos led to his exhaustive study of this pleochroism, and he concluded that such radiohalos do not in fact support the concept of a constant decay rate.

His impeccably careful work led to his reporting in 1967 that four polonium nuclides were found to be orphans. These parentless polonium radioisotopes showed no evidence of the usual parental thorium or uranium decay series, or that either of these necessary precursors had ever been anywhere nearby. And, even when thorium and uranium coexisted in the same mineral, it appeared as if all were created at the same time, but unaccountably long after the mineral itself had crystallized.

Furthermore, the ratio of the lead radiogenic decay end-products, Pb206 and Pb207, were found to range from both an empirically and theoretically expected maximum to up to three times more than that expected maximum, giving an apparent extraordinarily young age for the mineral--something like thousands of years instead of millions much less billions of years. Uranium-lead dating is the mainstay of geochronologists in calculating the geological age of granite and other plutonic rocks by the decay rates of U235 and U238 to their final products, Pb207 and Pb206, respectively, through the serial emission of alpha radiation. The oldest rocks found give an approximation of Earth's age at about four and a half billion years. Uranium halos are easily identified by the respective eight and seven concentric rings of the U235 and U238 decay series, and by the 125 relative diameters of the halos themselves. This size may approach as much as 80 (a mere three thousandths of an inch in diameter) due to the energetic 11.7 MeV (million electron volts) alpha particles from the polonium daughter-product, Po212. Each succeeding member of a series is somewhat more energetic than its predecessor, and typically has a much shorter half-life.

Geochronologists also use the ratios of the respective stable lead isotopes, Pb206 and Pb207, as how much of one there is compared to the other, where a ratio of 20:1 denotes the high end of the scale and very young minerals, while 4:1 signifies those over three billion years old. However, Gentry had found ratios that were three times as high as the theoretical maximum for the youngest rocks, and other researchers also have reported halos with diameters of up to 150, all of which point to either some extraordinarily recent paroxysms of nature, or an equally strange physico-chemical separation of decay products, or else there is something fundamentally askew in the age-dating process. Gentry has been silent on this point, expressing no conclusions, but has let the data speak for itself. And there has been a strange quiet in the halls of geochronology for some 20 years now.

Another questioner has been the late Ralph Juergens, a civil engineer and science writer in Flagstaff, Arizona, who pressed the point even further and asked: What role might environmental electrification play in setting the rules for nuclear stability, radiodecay rates, and energies of particle emissions in decay processes? What if the Earth's state of electrification were altered, even if only temporarily? Juergens answered his own questions by postulating that since radiohalos are found only in plutonic rocks, such as granite, the ultimate solution to this seemingly complex problem may require the consideration of physical forces which are well-known but seldom mentioned during a geologist's training. These forces are electrical in nature, and are inherent both in nuclear events and the environmental Earth.

Within the nucleus of a U238 atom there is a potential well of some 9 MeV which has to be overcome before any particles can escape. But, alpha emissions are known to get through measuring only 4 MeV by a process known in wave mechanics as "tunneling." This doesn't necessarily mean that helium nuclei actually had 13 MeV and lost most of this energy in escaping from the uranium source. And yet these events are rare, because of a given number of such uranium atoms only half of them will make it out of this potential well every 4.5 billion years, which is how the 4 1/2 -billion year "half-life" term is derived.

However, the subsequent daughter-products do so at a much faster rate, as the next three radiodecay isotopes in the series make it through their half-lives in about 332,000 years, and the following four zip on their way to the stable isotope of lead in a mere 142 days. The observed positively charged 4-MeV alpha radiation energy is totally due to electrostatic repulsion measured in the region outside of the potential well. And, since we can't directly measure the potential at the bottom of this well within the nucleus itself, inferring it from experimental accelerator studies, there therefore has to be some zero potential against which these energetics are measured, and it is this selfsame zero that Juergens argued is identical with the electric potential of our planet--Earth potential--which is highly negative, perhaps tens of millions of volts. (It should be remembered that any potential above some negative value--no matter how negative--is still positive with respect to the lower voltage.)

It has to be said at this point that the concept of an Earth potential is still considered hypothetical as there is no direct way that we can measure this background electrical or electrostatic charge from on the site of the Earth itself. It would be expected that any spacecraft leaving Earth would carry some residual charge with it, but traveling through the ionizing solar radiation of interplanetary space would completely dissipate that charge and any subsequent landing on either the Moon or another planet wouldn't cause a spark discharge from the spacecraft to the planetary body due to some potential difference, except for what is created by the retro-rocket fire of the spacecraft itself. Only by carrying a sealed experiment on such spacecraft specifically designed to measure potential differences between planetary bodies would we be able to at least indirectly determine such differences in electric potential. But, if indeed such differences do exist in reality, any measurements that might involve megavoltages could have their own peculiar technical problems.

Nonetheless, if, as Juergens speculated, a sudden drop lowered Earth potential by about a million volts, perhaps in the vicinity of ten percent, an escaping alpha particle would be accelerated to about 6 MeV from the nucleus of U238. Theoretically this could have the effect of reducing the half-life of uranium from 4.5 billion years to one measured in barely seconds. Juergens stated, "On this basis, any abrupt lowering...could be expected to produce rampant radioactivity, with consequent lethal or at least strongly mutational effects on all forms of life."

Nuclear binding forces may not be altogether insensitive to such environmental changes; nevertheless Gentry's data indicate Earth's potential may be critical to radioactivity, and hence to the entire dating game. If the Earth's own magnetic field is related in any way to its electropotential, then during certain epochs of time there must have been some changes taking place, as we know that there seem to have been some forty-odd reversals in magnetic polarity over the last few eons which had strong enough remanence to be measurable. A precipitous collapse of the Earth's field for one reason or another would surely affect any potential Earth might have and cause an equally precipitous outburst in radiodecay radiation.

At the moment I'd be a trifle skeptical that such released radiation would be inimical to all forms of life, as most radioisotopes are rather sparse and widely scattered on Earth's continental crust, and perhaps only those areas of large ore deposits of radioisotopes would be adversely affected. It could engender the odd pleochroic halos found by Gentry and others, but it would leave an unsavory and idiopathic problem for the geologists to explain. But, the greatest effect of even a partial collapse of Earth's magnetic field would probably be an intense cooling, particularly in the frigid latitudes surrounding the magnetic poles.

This phenomenon associated with magnetic behavior is known on a laboratory-scale as Giauque-Debye adiabatic demagnetization, where the collapse of a magnetic field induces a cooling effect by slowing or even stopping thermal molecular motion with no net gain or loss of energy. On an planetary-sized scale the cooling effect due to a rapid reduction or collapse of a magnetic field could freeze the atmosphere itself in the vicinity of the magnetic poles, causing the air itself to precipitate as snowflakes in a blizzard. The effects would be far-reaching and would lead to some interesting and almost indecipherable myths.

Such a phenomenon could in some measure explain why the mammoths of the northern tundra of not more than ten thousand years ago were suddenly frozen where they were otherwise peacefully grazing in a relatively lush and verdant environment. Additionally, it is also known that some of the males died and were frozen in a tumescent state, a condition known to occur in male mammals which have suffocated. If the air itself were chilled into a liquid rain or frozen into snowflakes there would have been none to breathe. Moreover, a huge atmospheric vacuum-like hole would have been created which would have been filled by the pressure of the surrounding atmosphere, causing an unprecedented tornadic wind vortex of super-hurricane strength to fill the airless void, picking up most everything in its path--including sizeable animals--and depositing them in heaps throughout the currently frozen north. Such mysterious hecatombs of animal bones, ranging from the Canadian archipelago to the Alaskan tundra and throughout the Siberian wastes, are well-known to paleontologists. Could such a phenomenon have occurred, or more to the point did such a thing indeed happen? And, if it did, what was the cause?

[Source: Frederic B. Jueneman - Raptures of the Deep]