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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Japanese Scientists Say Something Weird Happened In 8th Century

In the years 774 AD and 775 AD, the Earth was hit by a surge of cosmic rays (see image above), say a group of Japanese scientists from Nagoya University, led by Miyake Fusa (surname first).

The Japanese study examined a pair of Japanese cedar trees - looking at the heart of the rings of cedar trees alive 1,200 years ago - and found that by counting the rings, to those years, and then testing those rings, they found that there was a surge of carbon-14.

So... whoopee. Let the bells ring, let the people shout.

Well... first off, carbon-14 is an isotope that is derived from cosmic radiation. Carbon-14 is the slightly radioactive element that scientists use to pinpoint the age of ancient artifacts.

Anyhow... cosmic rays. Some of you may know that cosmic rays turned four stupid astronauts into the Fantastic Four, a comic book that was only great when Kirby and Byrne were at the helm.

Anyhow... these cosmic rays in real life will not give you gnarly super powers and make one of the hottest chicks on the planet the Invisible Girl!? Don't make Jessica Alba invisible! Make her clothes! Stupid, stupid movies.

Cosmic rays are subatomic particles that move through space. They are always hitting Earth, and when it does, it reacts with the oxygen and nitrogen in our atmosphere and creates new particles--like carbon-14.
Carbon-14 is absorbed by trees as a matter of natural course, and is made visible to mankind when the tree rings are analyzed.

Hopefully you are aware that when you cut a tree's trunk, you will see dark rings inside, and each ring represents one year of growth for the tree.

Cedar Tree rings. Wikipedia.
So... what's the big deal with the surge in carbon-14?

It means that there may have been an astrological event of some import. These two trees contained evidence of an unexplained event that hit our planet in the 8th century AD.

Now, should you wonder if two trees is an adequate sample size upon which to state there was some sort of cosmic event - it is an adequate sample.

First off... we are talking about trees that had to be alive 1,200 years ago. That's tough to find. But these guys did. As for there only being two trees... no biggie. Even if there was one tree that had evidence of a surge back in the 8th century AD...  really... what else was going to create that type of evidence? Nothing man-made, that's for sure.  

Cosmic rays, as mentioned, is always hitting Earth and forming into carbon-14, and is always being absorbed by trees. That means that when there is a surge - like there was in 774 and 775 AD, there's a reason.

There was a surge of 1.2% of carbon-14 in the tree rings, noting that the annual variation is only 0.05%.

Sounds pretty weenie, huh? Well, when studying botany and absorption of carbon-14, this is a huge difference. Huge, I tell ya. 

So... what caused the surge in carbon-14, or rather, what caused the surge of cosmic rays smashing into the Earth? 

Well... cosmic rays are constantly being spewed out by our sun.

One source of cosmic rays is the sun, as its 11-year solar cycle shows spikes and valleys and spews out solar flares with larger than usual amounts of cosmic rays - but strangely enough, during these two years, even if there was a solar flare, evidence suggests it would be far-far larger than any known solar flare ever.

Another source postulated is a supernova. A supernova is what we call the event after a star (our sun is a yellow dwarf star which when it begins to die will expand to become a red giant star and then a white dwarf star) at the end of its life explodes - Ka-BOOM! While there are many examples of supernova throughout recorded history - if close enough, we can see them here on earth... a flash that burns bright for a few years before dimming, but still visible as a glow for centuries - there is no known documentation of a supernova in the Northern Hemisphere in 774 AD.

How would we know? The Chinese and Arabs were extremely big on astronomy back then. Also... we can now back track radiation. Radiation surveys show that at that time there were remnants of two near-ish supernova: Cassiopeia A and Vela Jr - but scientists don't think that either of them were strong enough, or may have been too far away to be the cause of the spike of carbon-14 in the cedar trees.

Remnants of Cassiopeia A as seen by the Hubble telescope. From Wikipedia Commons. NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. Acknowledgement: Robert A. Fesen (Dartmouth College, USA) and James Long (ESA/Hubble).
Miyake, the leader of the research team says: "With our present knowledge, we cannot specify the cause of this event.

"However, we can say that an extremely energetic event occurred around our space environment in A.D. 775 . . . (but) neither a solar flare nor a local supernova is likely to have been responsible."

With nothing to lose, the team examine the cedar trees for traces of beryllium and nitrate isotopes, which may give them a better clue to determine if the cosmic rays did indeed come from our sun.

According to unpublished data from researchers at Belfast's Queen's University, they also found an increase in carbon-14 in tree rings in the mid 770s.

Part of their evidence includes Mike Baillie, a tree ring researcher with the Queen's group, stating that he has found evidence from a 13th-century English chronicler Roger of Wendover who writes about history passed down orally, Japan - It's A Wonderful Rife assumes:

"In the Year of our Lord 776, fiery and fearful signs were seen in the heavens after sunset; and serpents appeared in Sussex, as if they were sprung out of the ground, to the astonishment of all."

Could it have been a comet, or a meteor? Also... is there any data from someone chronically an event in the 770s, rather than commenting about it 500 years later? It could be tough, as this event took place during the Dark Ages, when many people did not know how to read or write. 

I can not find out from where in the world these two sample cedar trees were taken, nor if they were alive or taken from a dated temple to help give it a place to start counting tree rings. If anyone knows, I would appreciate a heads up.  

Files compiled by Andrew Joseph
I love astronomy! Yet, I have never looked at the moon through powerful binoculars or the stars via a telescope. Bucket list!

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