Quantum Tunnelling And Radioactive Decay

In high school science classes, we are told about a class of elements that have nuclei that are unstable; these are the radioactive elements and they emit radioactivity – Alpha, Beta and Gamma radiation. This emission is their attempt to go from an unstable state to a less unstable state and eventually to a stable state. This progression happens at a fixed mathematical progression termed the element’s half-life. In class you get an awful lot of the what – what decays; what are the daughter products; what is the measured half-life; what is the significance, etc. But you don’t get very much, if any, explanations as to the how and the why of events. That’s probably because any attempt to actually explain and how and the why of radioactivity ends up as pure bovine fertilizer.

There are two main anomalies here. Firstly, why would two identical unstable particles in the exact same environment will decay or go poof at different times; secondly why any collection of identical unstable particles will decay or go poof while marching to the beat of a mathematical drum.


Radioactive Decay: We all know about radioactivity (nuclear fission) and how some atomic nuclei are unstable and will at some point decay into more stable forms. So far; so good. The first issue is that nobody can predict when any particular unstable nuclei will go poof. There is no ultimate reason why one nucleus will go poof in five minutes and its next door neighbour won’t poof over the next five hundred years. There is no apparent causality involved. That alone is “Twilight Zone” stuff, but wait, there’s more. As we learn in high school, though the why is never explained, unstable (radioactive) nuclei decay or go poof in a fixed mathematical way, known by the phrase called the “half-life”. An example would be if half of the unstable nuclei went poof in one year; one half of what remains unstable goes poof during the next year; one half of what is still unstable decays in the third year; one half of what remains after that goes poof in the fourth year, and so on down the line until all the unstable nuclei have gone poof. So if you start in the beginning with say sixteen million unstable nuclei, after one year there’s still eight million unstable nuclei; after two years there’s four million left to go; after three years two million still haven’t gone poof; after four years one million; one year later there’s still a half million left, and so on and so on.

On a human level, apart from the nasties given in the abstract, radioactivity provides an abundant energy supply without any greenhouse gas emissions as well as a ways and means of dating historical events. On a cosmic level, radioactive decay turns complex unstable parent nuclei into simpler stable daughter nuclei by emitting Alpha, Beta and Gamma radiation, the former two being nothing more exotic than helium nuclei (the Alpha) and electrons (the Beta). Gamma radiation is best avoided since it is extremely high energy photons that can do your body a mischief.


The standard quantum model attributes radioactivity or radioactive decay to a magical phenomenon called Quantum Tunnelling. Translated, radioactive decay happens for absolutely no reason whatsoever. There is no causality. There is no cause and effect. Things go poof – well, things just go poof.

To get your head around the concept of Quantum Tunnelling, imagine one hundred convicts milling around a prison courtyard with twenty foot walls and no external exits. Then, for no obvious reason, fifty of those convicts vanish from inside the courtyard just to reappear somewhere outside the courtyard, and hence quickly make themselves scarce. One second they are confined within the prison walls; one nanosecond later they are scattering in all directions heading for the hills. They have tunnelled their way past the prison courtyard wall without actually physically doing any tunnelling! The escaped convicts in this analogy are of course those bits and pieces confined (or imprisoned) in the quantum realm, the Alpha, Beta and Gamma radiation part and parcel of radioactive decay.

In the quantum realm, though the nuclei might be unstable, the bits and pieces are held in place by an energy barrier, the equivalent of the twenty foot prison courtyard wall. In the macro world, they don’t have enough energy to clear the barrier, just like a long fly ball that doesn’t have enough oomph to clear the outfield fence and become a homerun – it’s just a long out. But in the micro realm, for reasons nobody comprehends, the unstable and restless-to-escape bits of the unwieldy unstable nuclei can cheat and tunnel past the energy barrier even though they don’t have sufficient theoretical oomph to do so. Not only can they quantum tunnel through, when they do they so instantaneously. And there’s no rhyme or reason behind it. There’s no causality. One second they are inside the radioactive nucleus; the next nanosecond after they are free as a bird and outward bound.

Not that in and of itself is absurd, but absurdity is piled upon absurdity when you consider that the ‘convicts’ don’t escape not only for no reason, but they do so in a precise military precision or mathematical sort of way. So our one hundred convicts become fifty in one hour; then twenty-five of those remaining ‘tunnel’ to freedom in the next hour; thirteen of those twenty-five vanish through the wall in the third hour; six of the remaining twelve head for the hills during the fourth hourly interval; three more go walkabout in the fifth hour; two more vanish in the sixth hour; and the last one standing makes an unexplainable vanishing act in the seventh hour, leaving the prison courtyard in a pristine and very stable state indeed without an inmate in sight.

How can you have both a total lack of causality AND maintain such military or mathematical (half-life) precision? It’s pure bovine fertilizer.


The standard model suggests that radioactive decay happens for no apparent reason at all since Quantum Tunnelling happens for no apparent reason at all. It’s all pure probability, even if it dances to a precise military/mathematical tune. The idea that Quantum Tunnelling is just pure probability yet results in a really neat graph when plotted goes rather against the grain of common sense.

Dealing with radioactive decay, well we (the observers) say the odds (probability) that an unstable atomic nucleus will go poof in say one hour (just a measure of time which is a human concept) is 50/50. Actually, it’s 100% certainty if you replace “one hour” with the phrase “sooner or later”. There is no actual probability involved. Now let’s go up one level. Each kind of unstable atomic nuclei, be it uranium (U-235 or U-238), plutonium (Pu), Technetium (Tc), Radon (Rn), Radium (Ra) and all those normally non-radioactive elements that have unstable isotopes, like radioactive carbon (C-14), and many others too numerous to mention, has its own unique half-life. That in itself tells you that causality must be operating. All differing nuclei are only different because they have different numbers of protons and neutrons that comprise them. Yet each, say U-235 nuclei, has the exact same number of protons and neutrons. That’s what makes U-235, U-235. That’s causality, not probability. And U-235 has a specific and unique half-life. That’s causality, not probability. The fact that differing configurations of protons and neutrons result in differing half-lives, and any one unique configuration results in one unique half-life, tells you that things are not random. Causality is operating; certainty follows. I have no idea what is the causality behind Quantum Tunnelling, only that I’m certain there is one.


Now IMHO that radioactive half-life decay progression makes absolutely no sense. If nuclei go poof for no reason at all, all those that go poof should do so in a totally random fashion – no fixed pattern. Since there is a fixed pattern that suggests to me that the unstable nuclei have to ‘know’ about this half-life obligation they are required to follow. They are self-aware enough to know when it is their turn to suicide (decay) in order to keep up appearances; maintain the quantum social order, and keep the half-life relationship valid.

Regarding Quantum Tunnelling, well firstly this violates Einstein’s cosmic speed limit – the velocity light travels in a vacuum. That’s because any gap instantaneously crossed by a particle undergoing Quantum Tunnelling – well, instantaneously means infinity and infinite velocity is greater than the speed of light.

Even scientist and science writer Marcus Chown described quantum tunnelling as “The apparently miraculous ability of microscopic particles to escape from their prisons”. When a scientist starts invoking miracles, you know something is weird!

Presumably if it wasn’t for that energy barrier holding together the bits and pieces of nuclei, stable or unstable, everything within would escape all at once and the micro world would go to hell in a hand-basket, just like if there were no prison walls all the convicts would flee in the immediate here and now. But if that energy barrier (or prison wall) could be breached (via Quantum Tunnelling) the question arises, if the ‘convicts’, macro or micro, can dematerialise and rematerialise elsewhere instantaneously, why don’t they all escape at the same time?

And I fail to see how invoking the wave property nature of elementary particles helps any since that would apply equally to stable and unstable (radioactive) nuclei. The wavelength would be larger than the nucleus, or in our analogy, the convict would be so spread out such that they would be larger than their prison courtyard. Everything, all the bits and pieces in each and every nuclei, should break out and break apart and escape immediately.

When it comes to radioactivity, apparently nothing chemical or physical can be done that will alter the nature of that radioactivity. Something that’s unstable, radioactive, will decay when it damn well feels like it. You can boil it in oil, sledgehammer it, soak it in acid, swear at it, even invoke the name of Jesus and it won’t alter anything. That in itself is more than just a little bit anomalous – not the Jesus bit but the fact that nothing you can do to an unstable nucleus in any chemical or physical shape manner or form will cause it to decay before it feels like it.


Enigma number one is why two identical non-living things in an absolutely identical environment should individually act as something possessing free will, which is acting with seemingly minds of their own. That’s just plain bizarre. If they don’t have self-awareness, and it’s absurd to suggest that subatomic nuclei have consciousness, then the alternative is that things happen for absolutely no reason at all. That’s also just plain bizarre. Further heading into “The Twilight Zone”, well the mathematical half-life behind the concept of the decay of unstable radioactive nuclei is just not the sort of natural behaviour that you’d expect. All unstable nuclei of the same type and in the same environment should all go poof at nearly, if not exactly, at the same moment. They don’t. That too is an enigma, IMHO.

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