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Has a Biochem Undergrad Solved a Cosmic Radiation Mystery? 156

Posted by Soulskill
from the nice-work-scoob dept.
scibri writes "A few weeks ago, reports of a mysterious spike in carbon-14 levels in Japanese tree rings corresponding to the year 775 intrigued astronomers. Such a spike could only have been caused by a massive supernova or solar flare, but there was no evidence of either of these at that time. Until Jonathon Allen, a biochem undergrad at UC Santa Cruz, Googled it. He found a reference in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to a 'red crucifix' appearing in the sky in 774, and speculates that it could have been a supernova hidden behind a cloud of dust, which could mask the remnants of the exploded star from astronomers today."
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Has a Biochem Undergrad Solved a Cosmic Radiation Mystery?

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  • Pics (Score:1, Troll)

    by necro81 (917438)
    Uggghhh, the linked article only has some lame text, written in some script I can't decypher, in a language I cannot understand. Scholarship is too hard!

    Pics or it didn't happen.

    [tongue in cheek]
    • Re:Pics (Score:5, Funny)

      by game kid (805301) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @10:24AM (#40478295) Homepage

      The letters are Elvish, of an ancient mode, but the language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here.

      • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Or vagina.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Nope. The letters are Roman, of a modern mode, and the language is that of England (or the U.S. variation thereof), which I will not utter here.

  • by kanto (1851816) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @10:26AM (#40478319)

    A.D. 774. This year the Northumbrians banished their king, Alred, from York at Easter-tide; and chose Ethelred, the son of Mull, for their lord, who reigned four winters. This year also appeared in the heavens a red crucifix, after sunset; the Mercians and the men of Kent fought at Otford; and wonderful serpents were seen in the land of the South-Saxons.

    http://omacl.org/Anglo/part2.html [omacl.org]

    Twas' a comment by JustOk. [slashdot.org]

    • by scibri (2544842) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @10:31AM (#40478363)
      Despite the best efforts of a few of us on the online team here, Nature is still pretty 'old media'. So if someone wants credit for an idea, they have to get it touch with us directly!
    • by Anonymous Coward

      774 was a very good year. Mozart wrote his Great Mass. The Montgolfier brothers went up in the first hot-air balloon. And England recognized the independence of the United States. No, wait......

    • This year also appeared in the heavens a red crucifix, after sunset;

      I'm a little dubious that a supernova, even one visible only in the west after sunset, would be described as a red crucifix. In astronomical photos stars look like crosses, but that's an artifact of the telescope optics, which they didn't have in the dark ages. A supernova just wouldn't look like a cross.

      On the other hand, I doubt it's aurora. Since England is pretty far north, and they didn't have artificial lights at night, they would see aurora far more often than we do now, and it just wouldn't rate

      • by SomePgmr (2021234)

        From the article...

        As far back as 1870, he says, John Jeremiah published an article in Nature that referred to the same wording from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Jeremiah proposed then that it might have been an early description of the Northern Lights2.

        "Another possible explanation could be an ice-crystal display," adds Olson, noting that the red "crucifix" could have been formed by sunset light illuminating high-altitude ice particles in both vertical and horizontal bands of light.

        But, it could also have been a previously unrecognized supernova. Plenty of supernovae now known to astronomers "are simply missing" in the historical record, says Gyuk. "The sky is a large place and the historical record is not very good."

    • by b4dc0d3r (1268512)

      Since I can't mod you +6... what blows my mind is this was the only informative comment by JustOK that I could quickly find. Most are just +5 Funny.

      This is one of the few remaining reasons I visit slashdot - the rare insightful comment, and the inevitable up-moderation it gets. And of course the meta-hive-mind, where someone much like yourself makes a connection. In a way, it's the closest I can get to James Burke's Connections article in Scientific American.

      If only more people would meta-mod, just to ke

      • "Connections" was one of the most awesome shows on television. Ever.

        It reminded me very much of Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach.

        (By the way... getting that umlaut right reminds me that Slashdot is still in the Web stone age... they don't even support UTF-8 yet. Evidence seems to indicate that the server-side code for Slashdot is Perl! Good Grid, how backwoods can a web developer get?)

        (Yet another note: I just had an interesting episode with builtwith.com, and they say the HTML on Slashdot is
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 28, 2012 @10:31AM (#40478367)
    Now this undergrad needs to get funding to track the source article down in it's original form and have it authenticated and cross verified with other ancient works. He will also need several other undergrads to cross check his work, several hours of super computer time or better their own workstations, also the usual funding for a trip (I mean "conference") of three weeks in the Bahamas to discuss all this with his peers after he writes the paper up and has it submitted to the proper journals to have the proper peer review that noone can afford to read in the correct publications. I figure 2 to 3 million dollars should do it. After all this could be the tiny spark of evidence as why reading tree rings and it's tree ring data should not or should be included in figuring out how Global Warming going back then and now, and how the whole normalizing of the tree ring data should be rethought! Micheal Mann should be all over this!
    • by pclminion (145572)
      Replying to undo moderation. I wanted Funny, not Flamebait.
    • by din0 (2608929)
      This is why I work in Information Technology with a History degree. When a primary source in 774 is a reference to a colored spot in the sky, you might as well include that they rode on unicorns that vomited rainbows.
    • by jdgeorge (18767)

      Micheal Mann should be all over this!

      No kidding! [wikipedia.org] Nothing says "non-stop action entertainment" quite like 8th-century tree rings, dude...

    • So I'll start an indiegogo page to get the funding [indiegogo.com]...as long as someone else starts a fund [indiegogo.com] for me because I did good by starting the fund :-)

  • by boristdog (133725) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @10:31AM (#40478369)

    Man, sciencing is so much easier these days.

  • No, he did not (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mapkinase (958129) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @10:33AM (#40478395) Homepage Journal

    He proposed an explanation more plausible than people before.

    • Re: (Score:2, Offtopic)

      by The Moof (859402)

      No, he did not

      Always remember Betteridge's Law of Headlines [wikipedia.org] whenever you see a question mark at the end of a headline like this. Question headlines have always been a trademark of poor article writing.

      • by mapkinase (958129)

        >Question headlines have always been a trademark of poor article writing.

        broad generalization

      • Does Ending a Headline in a Question Mark Signify Poor Writing?

        Your mind has been blown.
        • by jd (1658)

          Ending a headline in a question mark merely means they're writing in a language that is younger than Latin and has borrowed the shorthand notation developed by barbarians unwilling to write the questions out in full.

  • That these days our understanding of the past can be improved just by increased aggregation of existing data.
  • This could not have been caused by a supernova. A supernova would have affected almost the entire planet, not just Japan.
    • by geekoid (135745)

      Can't tell if stupid, or ignorant.

      • by camperdave (969942) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @12:06PM (#40479361) Journal

        Can't tell if stupid, or ignorant.

        Well, for it to have affected the entire planet, the supernova would have had to be on the celestial equator. If it was displaced significantly from the celestial equator, then the radiant energy from the supernova simply wouldn't hit the Earth's surface at certain latitudes - for the same reasons that the polar regions experience periods of perpetual darkness.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          It's irrelevant because C14 is derived from N14 in the upper atmosphere, and the atmosphere is well-stirred. The higher C14 would get mixed in globally no matter which side of the Earth was irradiated.

          The real issue is that all these sorts of "global event in year X" events start with a discovery at one or a few sites. For example, the iridium spike at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary was first found at Gubbio, Italy. Then it was found at dozens of other sites world-wide at the same boundary, but it took

          • It's irrelevant because C14 is derived from N14 in the upper atmosphere, and the atmosphere is well-stirred. The higher C14 would get mixed in globally no matter which side of the Earth was irradiated.

            Actually, only the troposphere is well stirred. The stratosphere and layers above it aren't stirred as much, and they settle into layers: hence stratosphere. Nevertheless, your point is well taken. By the time the excess C14 reaches the leaves of the trees, it is most likely well dispersed all over the planet.

      • by Khyber (864651)

        "Can't tell if stupid, or ignorant."

        Can't tell if poorly educated, or just ignorant of where Japan is in relation to England and how day and night works.

        Oh, wait, one and the same thing.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      This could not have been caused by a supernova. A supernova would have affected almost the entire planet, not just Japan.

      Don't you mean: "This could not have been caused by a supernova. A supernova would have affected almost the entire planet, not just two tree ring samples from Japan"?

    • Maybe it has something to do with Japan being an island and having certain tree types. It was atmospheric carbon-14 which means it got down into the trees and maybe that only happens in certain weather and airflow patterns or something. Still, you would think it'd hit more of the Earth anyway like Hawaii or something but the article doesn't seem to indicate that.
      • Oh, I just realized not a lot of trees live to be 1300 years old. So...there's that, lol. Someone take a geiger counter to the redwood forests :-P
        • Right. Sure, the supernova would affect the entire planet. Problem is, there's not a lot of things left that record the event. The student's hypothesis is still quite valid.
        • by phayes (202222)

          Nobody said that the wood that had the carbon 14 spikes was in trees still alive today nor that only Japanese trees show the spike, just that wood that has been reliably dated to 775 in japan has the spike.

        • Oh, I just realized not a lot of trees live to be 1300 years old. So...there's that, lol. Someone take a geiger counter to the redwood forests :-P

          No, we will have to chop them all down to correctly analyze the rings. Of course, in order not to waste the wood we will sell it to the highest bidder. And we will have to cut down a large number of trees so as to get a good statistical sample.

          --- Yours in Science and Industry (or Industry and 'Science')
          Dick Cheney

    • by Snotnose (212196)

      Think of the dust cloud as a kid with a magnifying glass, and Japan as the ants.

    • by dark grep (766587)

      In those days, the earth was still stationary at the centre of the universe. Under those conditions astronomical phenomena may have only been visible from and effect some parts of the earth and not others. I guess it would depend on which crystal sphere the supernova occurred in.

  • by vossman77 (300689) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @10:36AM (#40478429) Homepage

    Interesting to me, is that in the linked article there is a slashdot comment with the "red crucifix" text discussed in this article.

    http://news.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=2893343&cid=40208359 [slashdot.org]

    The podcast that the student listened to was produced on June 7 and the slashdot comment was June 4. Hmm... to think user JustOK could have been in Nature.

    • Does that mean I've been tricked into reading TFA?

    • by kyrio (1091003)
      The way it sounds to me: kid sees post on Slashdot. Kid "reports his findings" to some prof. Kid gets published for doing even less than a Google search, he just stole* the information from a /. post. *Stolen because he lied about how he got the information.
      • he just stole* the information from a /. post.

        Was the Slashdot poster an expert on the religious writings of Saxony in 774, or did he Google it (too?)?

      • by RockDoctor (15477)
        The chronicle in question had been noted "in the literature" as potentially indicating a supernova back in the 1970s.
    • by BobNET (119675)

      JustOK's sig is "rewriting history since 2109", so it's possible they just copied the Nature article from three weeks in the future.

    • The podcast that the student listened to was produced on June 7 and the slashdot comment was June 4. Hmm... to think user JustOK could have been in Nature.

      Perhaps JustOK is the actual student and is just bad at remember dates:-/

  • "The increase in 14C levels is so clear that the scientists, led by Fusa Miyake, a cosmic-ray physicist from Nagoya University in Japan, conclude that the atmospheric level of 14C must have jumped by 1.2% over the course of no longer than a year, about 20 times more than the normal rate of variation"

    Does this mean that new supernova contributed 1.2% of radiation of all stars, including Sun? Does Sun contribute to Carbon 14 contents in tree rings?

    Were similar tree ring changes has been detected during known supernova events in history?

    • Does this mean that new supernova contributed 1.2% of radiation of all stars, including Sun? Does Sun contribute to Carbon 14 contents in tree rings?

      Yes, that means the supernova contributed to 1.2% of the neutron radiation of the Sun, as the rest of the Universe isn't really relevant for calculations.

      • by mapkinase (958129)

        Elaborating on your useful comment :

        >as the rest of the Universe isn't really relevant for calculations
        >that means the supernova contributed to 1.2% of the neutron radiation of the Sun

        eaeliest supernova recorded in history [wikipedia.org]: earliest, because that correlates with brightness. It's brightness -8. Brightness of Sun is -27

        Each grade of magnitude was considered twice the brightness of the following grade (a logarithmic scale).

        2^19=500K difference - far from 1.2%. But that's only slightly relevant since you

  • physics question (Score:4, Insightful)

    by slashmydots (2189826) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @10:43AM (#40478515)
    I didn't get way into physics in high school but I was interested. Hearing this explanation confuses me so there are probably more people than me who are wondering this. How exactly can cosmics radiation can cause carbon atoms in the atmosphere to gain neutrons? No new carbon is being formed, obviously, so existing carbon atoms would have to be turning into carbon-14 and I didn't think it was possible to just slip in another neutrons without basically blowing up the nucleus of any atom. I mean we don't "make" tritium for example by stuffing in more nuetrons magically, we have to sort it out of seawater. I would bet I could randomly throw my mouse and hit 3 physicists here at slashdot so could someone explain what the correlation between supernovas and carbon 14 is?
    • Re:physics question (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 28, 2012 @10:47AM (#40478559)

      The radiation turns one proton in a nitrogen atom into a neutron, changing the atom from nitrogen to carbon, with two extra neutrons.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      If you'd bothered to wikipede: "Cosmic rays are energetic charged subatomic particles, originating in outer space.They may produce secondary particles that penetrate the Earth's atmosphere and surface. The term ray is historical as cosmic rays were thought to be electromagnetic radiation." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmic_rays
      "Carbon-14 is produced in the upper layers of the troposphere and the stratosphere by thermal neutrons absorbed by nitrogen atoms. When cosmic rays enter the atmosphere, they underg

      • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        If your source of all things certain is wikipeding, you shouldn't bother posting replies.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      It's only a few nuclei that fall completely apart when they encounter a neutron. In fact, the first time physicists observed that happening, it was so unexpected that they didn't realize at first that it was what they were seeing.

      Most absorb the neutron, often having a secondary reaction that changes them to a different element.

      Tritium is not sorted out of seawater. With a half-life of 12 years it isn't found in nature. You may be thinking of deuterium.

    • by NikeHerc (694644)
      I mean we don't "make" tritium for example by stuffing in more nuetrons magically, we have to sort it out of seawater.

      Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tritium [wikipedia.org]) gives numerous ways to "make" tritium.
    • by physburn (1095481)
      First Fast proton knock neutrons out of atoms.

      n+N14 ->C14 + p

      See the radiocarbon dating page at wikipedia.

      • by physburn (1095481)
        To write the reaction more clearly, cosmic ray proton (very fast) + atom -> lots of neutrons and protons at medium speeds then n+N14->C14 +p
    • by Chuckstar (799005)

      The reason Carbon 14 dating works is because cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere keep creating more Carbon 14, keeping the level of Carbon 14 in the atmosphere constant fairly constant. Carbon 14 is absorbed through photosynthesis, resulting in the amount within a plant being roughly the same proportion as the amount in the atmosphere. Once the plant dies (or in the case of tree rings, once that ring is done growing) no more Carbon 14 is absorbed, and the amount in the plant material starts to decline alon

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      Tritium is made by shoving lithium or deuterium into a nuclear reactor where it absorbs a neutron and splits apart (lithium) or just keeps the neutron (deuterium).

  • http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0318649/ [imdb.com]

    It's funny the movie had something like this in it. I don't want to do any spoiler of the movie
  • Google existed in 774??
  • by INeededALogin (771371) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @11:53AM (#40479239) Journal
    I guess we can mark that UFC off the list. Next please.
  • There is danger in conducting a search for what you expect to see because you WILL find what your looking for if you look hard enough.

    What separates real scientists from crackpots is what you do next after you get a hit.

  • Let me see, cosmic Japanese radiation and giant crosses in the sky?

    First thing that comes to mind was the anime Evangelion.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neon_Genesis_Evangelion_(anime) [wikipedia.org]

    Did the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle look something like this?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eva_cross_explosion.png [wikipedia.org]

  • by careysub (976506) on Friday June 29, 2012 @03:31AM (#40491121)

    I looked into the literature on supernovas and carbon-14 and found this: http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19690024196_1969024196.pdf [nasa.gov] also see: http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/1520-0469(1964)021%3C0134%3APOCBSP%3E2.0.CO%3B2 [ametsoc.org]

    The 775 C-14 spike is 20 times the normal level. According to this paper the closest recent supernova (the Crab Nebula supernova in 1054) was only capable of producing a spike 8% more than normal.

    To get a 2000% increase over normal you need a supernova 16 times closer, about 400 light years away, and 250 times brighter than 1054. The angular diameter of such a remnant today would be larger than the full moon, it seems unlikely that there are any dense dust clouds of this visible size for an object like this to hide behind. An obscure reference in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle does no a credible supernova make.

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