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No. 137: SEP-OCT 2001

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The Missing Helium

The situation now described is analogous to the saga of the "missing solar neutrinos" mentioned under ASTRONOMY. Here, it is our model of the earth's interior rather than that of the sun that is at risk. There is simply not enough helium escaping from earth's crust to account for the heat flowing outwards from our planet's core.

You see, most of the earth's internal fires are fueled by the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium. The heat produced by these disintegrations eventually makes its way to the surface where we can measure it. but the helium (4He) created by the radioactive decay of the uranium and thorium is mostly missing. The discrepancy is large, and scien tists are confronted with the possibility that we are wrong about either the source of the earth's heat or the facts of nuclear physics. You can bet it will not be the latter. We are confident that helium atoms cannot change their type like those solar neutrinos! Neither can we blame chemical sequestration because helium is a noble gas. Perhaps the missing helium is physically trapped and stored somewhere in the earth's mantle. No one knows the answer; nor does any one pay much attention to this clearcut anomaly.

(Chin, Gilbert, ed. ; "A Scarcity of Gas," Science, 292:2219, 2001.)

From Science Frontiers #137, SEP-OCT 2001. 2001 William R. Corliss

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