Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Radioactive Decay Changes!

From Rob

When I was in high school and perhaps 2/3rds through college, I was very much into young earth creationism and I felt it was one of the most important movements for biblical Christianity. For several reasons, I have long left that sentiment. I'm no longer comfortable with the way YEC advocates come very close to de-Christianizing orthodox Christians of other views from progressive creationists to theistic evolutionists. I no longer am confident that taking Genesis seriously and authoritatively demands a "literal" interpretation.

Still, I know my place. I began to recognize, even when I was more hyper about the issue, that my limited technical knowledge meant that many of the issues where beyond my ability to judge.

For this reason and perhaps others, while I don't identify with the YEC (Young Earth Creation) movement, I actually don't want them to go away. I don't consider it beyond a reasonable doubt that they may be on to something, that they may indeed come out ahead of the game and may be right about many things. And it's all due to what so many in the 20th century seem to take for granted even if they pay lip service to it. Science is tentative.

I followed an article from popsci on this that serves as a reminder and it involves a matter very important to YEC. Those who have a bone to pick with the idea of an ancient universe or at least an ancient earth have an issue with radio-isotopic dating. It turns out that the decay rates that those methods depend upon are not set in stone and may be altered.

The consequences aren't just for those who have a beef to pick with an ancient age for the universe. Those decay constants are probably linked to many physical principles. Those principles may be wrong. As the article concluded, "Perhaps our understanding of nuclear physics in general -- is a lot weaker than we thought."


Barb said...

Well-written, Sir. And humbly so.

steve said...

Atomic decay is the most accurate means of measuring time there is. It's why our clock is based on an atomic clock. I would trust that more than "mere speculation".

Christian Apologist said...

The variation of the decay rate is very small. Nowhere near the variation needed to give a young earth age. If I remember correcttly the rate of decay is based on the random collision of particles within the sample giving off radiation and the decaying the remaining particle. Over a long time span the probability of such collisions comes out to a regular/constant rate of decay. this is part of the reason why radiometric dating has such a large precision window. i.e. 1 million years +/- 200k years. In essence for this to open up any windows for YEC it would have to speculate a massive event which radically accelerated the decay rates. Such an event would result in a large amount of radiation being released and probably the extinction of all life on earth.

Barb said...

Well, Steve, tell me why my Wal-Mart radioactive clock I bought for Mom is always an hour off, no matter what I do to adjust for the time zone. Ah HA! Science failure!!!

CA --you and Rob write so well! God bless you at seminary!!! You will be missed. My husband noted what you taught about the Moravian missionaries' influence on Wesley--so you taught him something.

Barb said...

All I'm sure of, is that my uncle is not a monkey's uncle! :-D

I am convinced that we were humans from the first human--and that Adam and Eve had no earthly parents and normal earthly birth. The when and how aren't too important to me --except that I think it's preposterous to think we share common ancestor with apes --even in God's celestial lab.

Barb said...

Rob R said...

Steve, are you even reading what you are commenting on? The scientific data has progressed from the old view that decay rates are constant.

Whether it is accurate in the short term or not, Popular Science, which was sourcing Stanford University news, reported that activity in the sun changes decay rates. Thus it is NOT as accurate as one thinks.

Now this is not a cut and dried victory for young earth creationists. But it does open up more conceptual space for their view as the rigidity of the common view is inaccurate.

Young earth creation scientists have acknowledged that radiometric data are a problem for them because many different methods are consistent with each other. But if all of the decay rates can change, then this is not clearly a problem, and now we learn that such a thing indeed happens.

August 27, 2010 7:46 AM

Rob R said...

CA, as I said, the YEC's now have more conceptual room since radio-active decay isn't clearly the constant that most scientists thought it was and it can change for reasons that scientists don't understand (though they have an idea, perhaps an undiscovered particle that links the decay to the sun). Whether or not the variation that we see today isn't enough isn't a deciding issue. I didn't think it was. The point is that there is variation where scientists didn't think it was and it may have SERIOUS consequences even if those consequences don't turn out to be the boon to YEC that they could be.

And Y.E. creationists do hypothesize that there was such a cataclysm that altered the rate of decay. Many speculate that whatever caused the decay rates to increase, it coincided with the world wide flood.

Would it have caused so much radiation that it would have wiped out creation? Problem with this is that we don't know how much material was originally radioactive, and what alleged "daughter" atoms weren't really the byproduct of radio-active decay at all. This might not be as big of a concern for scientists who are dating one chunk of volcanic rock, but it's big issue when you're speaking of the entire radioactive contents of the earth for a source of life threatening radiation. Furthermore, while one might make an issue of the heat caused in such an event, much of the harmful ionizing radiation would have been blocked by mile deep oceans (which would block a huge amount of ionizing radiation) and perhaps even non-radioactive geological materials, rock, mud, etc.

Would this be enough? Well I'm not plugging the numbers and I probably can't, I don't have the data to work with, and I doubt your training gets you further than me in that regard. And many of those who could wouldn't take the issue seriously enough to do so, and even if they did, would still be working with many of the assumptions and thinking from an old earth paradigm.

I completely and fully recognize that these new observations may not be enough, and I'm not going to put my eggs in this basket like I used to. But I just don't know enough to say that the basket isn't even there and I don't have confidence in those who insist that they do have such knowledge even though it may be greater than mine.

Even though this is a far cry from settling the issue, YEC's have one less very very important reason working against their view, that radioactive decay is constant.

Granted, this discovery may turn out to be nothing. The data might not be reproduced. Science after all is tentative.

Jeanette said...

Interesting discussion. As I was praying the other night during the praise part of my worship I mentioned that we did not come from apes and God did not make several mistakes before He made man.

Here are my crazy thoughts: We have no idea how long Adam and Eve stayed in the Garden of Eden. It could have been days, weeks or millions of years.

We do know there were dinosaurs and creatures some people call early man. I don't believe they were man because I believe that, like any animal, they did not have souls, and the soul is what made us in God's image...our spirit, if you will.

Now, what about the dinosaurs and the creatures people think were mistakes of God being here? We know they existed from bones excavated and we know from what science tells us they are old. How old is over my head but CA and Rob seem to have a good grasp on it.

We know something cataclysmic destroyed these creatures, but yet Man exists.

Because Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden do you suppose it's possible they were protected from whatever cataclysm occurred? I do.

It was only when they fell that they were tossed out of Eden. So, if we were able to locate Eden (some think it's in what is now Iraq) and if we were able to get beyond the angels guarding it with swords of fire, it would seem to me to be the place to try to date anything since it is Ground Zero.

But we know we can never get in there even if we find it. It would be too hot to enter and the angels guarding it would do just that.

Crazy thinking maybe, but thoughts that have run through my mind the last few days. I'd like to see if anyone else thinks it might make sense.

We know Man was the last creation and God created the heavens and the earth in six days. I'm beginning to believe it was six real days since the morning and the evening were the first day and it takes 24 hours to make a day.

What do the rest of you think of my convoluted thinking? As long as you don't call me names I won't mind what you say, but over here since a certain person no longer has posting rights the conversations are more pleasant.

Thanks for indulging my fantasies.

Barb said...

I was thrilled to see World magazine's Jewish convert to Christianity (in college) editor, Marvin O'Laskey, come out in favor of young earth creationists --not to assert that they were entirely right--but he went on a river rafting trip with them --and was impressed. Someone told him that he owed them the fairness of acquaintance with them and their ideas and research since he had assumed (I think) that they were all wet --at least about age of earth. I see that one of Institute for Creation Research's young staffers has his PhD from Harvard.

I hear that in California, Christian school grads cannot get into state schools if their school taught creation science. That is absurd --because those who know creation science typically understand evolution better than most laymen and non-science grads. And here we have a phD from Harvard who believes in young earth special creation--as do many many other science majors/grads/careerists at LEAST believe in special creation --if not the old earth --intelligent design behind the process and skepticism that we have common ancestors.

Marvin made a distinction between historical science and practical or operational science (I can't think of the phrase he used for that --but I know what he meant--science as observed --functional science) as opposed to science of origins --of which God was the only observer.

Barb said...

I spelled Olasky wrong in my previous comment.

Rob R said...

Jeanette, YEC's would say that the reason for the dinosaurs extinction is due to the flood. I don't believe any of them still hold that the flood wiped them all out but rather that there were dinosaurs present on the ark as younger smaller members of their species that would fit (a baby tyrannosaurus after all could perch on your shoulder). But after the flood, somehow the environment changed such that it was hostile to them so they dwindled and died. And also, subsequently, humanity's average age dwindled so the oldest of us don't get much past a hundred which is rare anyhow.

There is much more

You say by the way that we KNOW that they are old by what science tells us. Well, the point of the topic is that those who challenge "what science tells us" have more room to do so than they did in the past on scientific grounds.

On the other side of things, for the six alleged literal days, I would recommend a book by John Walton called "the lost World of Genesis one" where he explains the richness and meaning of the document if a lieteral intepretation isn't true (I don't think he would put it that way but would give the stronger statement that a literal interpretation ISN'T true and best way to read the text)

steve said...

I think the idea of a literal interpretation of Genesis is insulting to God. Because one of the most beautiful things about our reasoning mind is the ability to see between the lines and create rich metaphor and allegory in order to expand on a point and teach more than just what is literally being written. You, as an English teacher should recognize that. If God is the author of reason - and as such, the author of analogy and metaphor, then doesn't it do God justice to see the inspired writings about God through a lens of metaphor?

Jeanette said...


It seems that Monsieur Philippe Maire has been visiting this thread and is spreading lies about what is actually being said on it, along with describing Rob in his usual, unflattering way.

I guess without being able to call me he now has time to visit other blogs, including Mudrake's; only he makes comments there and forgets what he read here when he tries to talk about it.

What a jerk! This is not necessarily for publication but just FYI.

Barb said...

I'm not personally bothered by the idea that Genesis creation verses might be metaphorical (as to length of days in particular) --I just find it very convincing that the evolutionists are far more wrong than the young earth creationists. I think observeable science bears out the fact that each life form reproduces after its own kind --just like the bible says. Apes beget apes and humans beget humans --and it has always been so.

Rob R said...

Steve, lines between metaphor and litaral language are blurry such that when we speak literally, metaphors may yet be shaping our concepts behind that language.

As for what is more dignified for God to use, metaphor or literal language, I think it's absurd to be dogmatic either way. We communicate both ways. Why shouldn't God also communicate both ways?

Even if it wasn't though, I don't think this really settles the question. I, from my limited understanding consider it a possible option that Genesis 1 and 2 are "more" metaphorical, God didn't create in six literal days, and yet the earth could be young and created in a special act that just isn't disclosed sufficiently to our scientific research. I don't know that that's true, I'm just saying I think there are other possibilities out there that the research hasn't worked out yet.