More Evidence for Variable Radioactive Half-Lives

NOTE: Long after this article was published, new experimental data was published indicating that the effect is not real.

One of the foundational assumptions of the various radioactive dating techniques that attempt to measure the age of things is that the half-life of a radioactive isotope does not change significantly over the time period being measured. Even though we have been measuring half-lives for only about 100 years, those who want to believe that the earth is billions of years old are forced to assume that over those billions of years, the half-lives of various radioactive isotopes have not changed significantly. As I have pointed out before, this is a terrible extrapolation, and a careful scientist should avoid using it unless there are very good reasons to believe it is justified. As more and more data come in, it becomes more and more clear that there are very good reasons to believe it is not justified.

I previously discussed data that indicate radioactive half-lives are not constant, but over the past year and a half, some new information has come out that lends more strength to the claim. As I discussed previously, two independent labs noticed that the decay rate of certain isotopes were influenced by the distance between the earth and the sun. They produced a paper in 2008 reporting on their findings: the rate at which these isotopes decayed varied in perfect sequence with the changing of the distance between the earth and the sun1 Many in the scientific community blamed this on experimental errors such as environmental changes or problems with the detectors that were monitoring the isotopes. Studies published over the past year and a half, however, seem to have ruled out these possibilities and have lent even more credence to the idea that the sun influences radioactive decay rates.

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Those Bones Keep Looking Younger and Younger

Fossil mosasaur that contained soft tissue. (Image from the PloS One article mentioned below)

Mosasaurs are aquatic reptiles that are (as far as we know) extinct today. According to evolutionists, they went extinct about 65 million years ago. Regardless of when they went extinct, there are several fossils of these large creatures, and some of them are quite well preserved.

On August 9, 2010, PloS One published a paper by Johan Lindgren and his colleagues, and it discusses the fossilized remains of a mosasaur that belongs to genus Platecarpus. The fossil is exceptional because it is largely intact, the bones are well-articulated, and it contains soft tissue.

Of course, soft tissue in dinosaur fossils is not new. As I mentioned in a previous post, Mary Schweitzer and her colleagues stunned the world in 2005 by discovering soft tissue in a Tyrannosaurus rex femur that is supposed to be 65 million years old. Some scientists tried to discredit the claim, but it held up under scrutiny. In addition, other fossils that are supposedly millions of years old have been found to contain soft tissue.

So why am I blogging about this particular find of soft tissue in a fossil that is supposedly about 80 million years old? Because the details found in the soft tissue are quite remarkable.

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Sorry Sagan…

The Sun - Image from NASA
There are many, many data sets that clearly indicate the earth is young. I have blogged about several of them, some of which give direct measurements indicating that the earth is about 10,000 years old. Other data sets simply put upper limits on the age of the earth. One of those data sets is based on the behavior of the sun. As I have blogged before, the sun produces energy via thermonuclear fusion, and we know enough about thermonuclear fusion to understand that if the sun really has been around for billions of years, it is significantly hotter now than it was back then, probably by about 25%.

This, of course, produces a problem for an earth that is supposedly billions of years old. After all, the earth needs a certain amount of energy in order to support life. A billions-of-years-old sun would produce significantly less energy in the distant past than it does now, resulting in an earth that is simply too cold to support life.

Of course there are many scientists who are so desperate to believe in a billions-of-years-old earth that they are forced to produce some sort of narrative so that they can “explain around” this obvious problem. Once such scientist was Carl Sagan. In 1972, he and a colleague wrote a paper1 that suggested that the problem could be solved if the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was significantly greater in the distant past.** He fervently hoped that a lot of extra carbon dioxide would produce a much stronger greenhouse effect, making the earth sufficiently warm enough for life, even when the sun was a lot dimmer.

Now this is only a partial solution to the problem, because not only did Sagan need to have faith that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were significantly greater in the past, he also had to ardently believe that those concentrations would slowly fall in perfect coordination with the increase in the brightness of the sun so that the earth would never get too hot or too cold as the sun got brighter and brighter.

Well, now we know that despite Sagan’s desperate hopes, his explanation doesn’t work.

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Genesis and The Big Bang – Part 2

In part 1 of this review, I told you the things I liked about Genesis and The Big Bang by Dr. Gerald L. Schroeder. Now I want to move on to the things I didn’t like about the book. As I already mentioned, Dr. Schroeder seems firmly committed to the Big Bang model, despite its many problems. However, that’s not my main concern. While there are a lot of problems with the Big Bang model, there are some data that support it, so it is not irrational to choose to work with that paradigm. My problems with the book go much deeper than that.

My first problem is that Dr. Schroeder has either not investigated the myriad of opinions of ancient Jewish theologians, or he conveniently doesn’t tell the reader about them. He wants to make the case that he is getting his theology from sources that have not been influenced by modern science. He chooses four theologians (Onkelos, Rashi, Maimonides, and Nahmanides) that he says have “withstood time’s test,” and he says:

Because their commentaries were written long before the advent of modern physics, we avoid the folly of using interpretations of tradition that may have been biased by modern scientific discoveries. (p. 18)

I have two problems with this statement. First, there are many more than four ancient Jewish theologians who have “withstood the test of time.” I am not even Jewish, and I can name several more off the top of my head: Philo Judaeus, Akiba ben Yossef, Saadiah ben Yosef Gaon, Abraham ibn Daud, etc., etc.

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Genesis and The Big Bang – Part 1

Dr. Gerald L. Schroeder is a very original thinker. I recognized that when I read one of his previous books, The Science of God. Dr. Schroeder holds an earned PhD in physics and earth science from MIT and currently is an international consultant on radioactivity and a faculty member at Aish HaTorah College of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. As an orthodox Jew, he takes the Old Testament very seriously. He believes that the days in Genesis are definitely 24-hour days, but he also believes that the earth is billions of years old. In fact, his writings indicate that he is a theistic evolutionist.

How can a theistic evolutionist believe that the days of Genesis are 24-hour days? That’s where his original thinking comes in. As a PhD physicist, he understands that defining reference frame is very important. After all, we know the rate at which time passes depends on the reference frame in which you are measuring time. For example, time passes more quickly on the GPS satellites than it does here on earth. If this were not taken into account, your Garmin would not lead you to your destination. Thus, the question in Dr. Schroeder’s mind is not “How long were the days of Genesis?” He is convinced they were 24 hours long. The question in his mind is “In what reference frame did those 24 hours pass?”

In The Science of God (and in this book), he gives us the answer to that question. He says the reference frame is not that of earth. Indeed, earth doesn’t become the focus of the creation account until after a couple of days pass. As a result, he thinks that the reference frame in which the Genesis days are defined is that of the universe as a whole. This produces an interesting effect.

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It’s A Wonderful Time to Be a Young-Earth Creationist

In 2005, Mary Schweitzer and her colleagues published an “astonishing” result – they had found soft tissue in a Tyrannosaurus rex femur.1 Given the fact that such dinosaur bones have been supposedly lying around for 65 million years or so, no one expected them to contain soft tissue. Indeed, laboratory studies seem to indicate that soft tissue decays in a matter of 50 weeks or so,2 and it was thought that proteins would break down after only 30,000 years, unless special circumstances were present.3

Even when special circumstances are present, the molecules that make up soft tissue are not supposed to last for 65 million years. A multidisciplinary approach to the problem of biomolecule decay in fossils led to the conclusion that under nearly ideal conditions, DNA should decay to the point where it becomes undetectable in just 125,000 years, and collagen (a protein) should decay to the point where it becomes undetectable in just under 3 million years. 4 Nevertheless, Schweitzer and her colleagues found collagen in a bone that is supposedly more than twenty times as old.

It is not surprising, then, that many scrambled for any explanation other than the fact that Schweitzer and her colleagues had found soft tissue and collagen in the T. rex bone. For example, some researchers tried to produce a study indicating that the soft tissue found wasn’t soft tissue at all. Instead, it was a biofilm made by bacteria.5

As much as old-earthers would want what Schweitzer and her colleagues found to be anything but soft tissue, her results are now unequivocal. First, Schweitzer has found soft tissue in another dinosaur fossil that is supposed to be 80 million years old! 6 In addition, another group has made a soft tissue find, and in my opinion, it is even more remarkable.

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Kicking and Screaming

I am a nuclear chemist. I chose to be a nuclear chemist because studying the nucleus fascinates me. It’s amazing enough to study something we can never hope to actually see, but the fact that the nucleus is shrouded by clouds of electrons makes the job all the more fun.

Because I am a nuclear chemist, there are certain things I don’t want to believe. For example, I don’t want to believe quantum mechanics is wrong just because it is incompatible with general relativity. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want general relativity to be wrong, either. Black holes, white holes, and wormholes are just far to fun to ever want to give up! Nevertheless, if I have to choose one of those two theories to be wrong (because they are incompatible), I will to choose general relativity, because quantum mechanics works so incredibly well when it is applied to small things like the nucleus.

For a long time, there was something else I didn’t want to believe. I didn’t want to believe that the half-lives of radioactive isotopes could change. It seemed so clear to me at the time: radioactive half-lives depend on the energetics of the nucleus, and the energy levels in the nucleus are (roughly speaking) about 100,000 times that of the electrons in an atom. Thus, if nature exposes a radioactive atom to stress, the electrons should be the ones that deal with the stress, not the nucleus. The nucleus is under the electron cloud, and it deals in energies that are so much greater than electron energies, that the electrons effectively “shield” the nucleus from being affected by most of the stress that nature can throw at it.

Over the years, however, the data have drug me (kicking and screaming the entire way) to the point where I have to admit that radioactive half-lives can change, and in some cases, they can change quite substantially.

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Was There Animal Death Before the Fall?

Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows two things about me. First, I am a young-earth creationist. Second, I am skeptical of most young-earth creationist theology. For example, as I have written before, while I believe that the days in Genesis 1 are 24-hour days, I do not think they must be interpreted that way. Indeed, a good number of early church fathers didn’t interpret them that way. They didn’t think the days in Genesis 1 had anything to do with time. Instead, they thought the days were simply a means by which Creation could be ordered. Since many in the early church were willing to think that the days in Genesis 1 were not 24-hour days, why do many modern young-earth creationists insist that they must be 24-hour days? Is there something that today’s young-earth creationists know that Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, Augustine, and Hilary of Poitiers didn’t know?

Unfortunately, the shoddy theology of most young-earth creationists doesn’t stop with the insistence that the days in Genesis must be 24-hour days. Another unfortunate claim most make is that there was no animal death before the Fall. Like the insistence that the days in Genesis 1 are 24-hour days, this claim is based on an incredibly inept view of Scripture.

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Fiat Days in Genesis

John Holzmann is a man I respect and admire. I have never met him, but he seems to me the picture of a true Renaissance Man. He has a degree in philosophy from Michigan State University and a Masters of Divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary. He and his wife started a homeschool curriculum company (Sonlight Curriculum) that is wildly popular and promotes what I like to call a “neo-classical” approach to education. In this approach, a large fraction of learning comes not from textbooks, but from real literature that relates to the topic at hand. When you study Native Americans, for example, you don’t read a textbook about Native Americans, you read literature written by Native Americans or by people who interacted with Native Americans. It is an approach that can be a bit time consuming for the parent, but it produces well-educated students who are voracious readers.

Obviously, anyone who has enough knowledge of literature to be part of a two-person team who could produce such a complete curriculum must be incredibly knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects. In addition, I have had drawn-out E-MAIL conversations with him regarding the age of the earth (a subject on which we disagree), and not only is he thoroughly familiar with the main scientific issues related to the subject, he can discuss them in a meaningful and respectful way. Thus, when John Holzmann commented on my blog, I sat up and took notice.

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Here’s Your Second Choice…

In my previous entry, I mentioned two options for the person who believes in an ancient earth and still wants to interpret the days of Genesis as 24-hour days. The first is that God created with the appearance of age. However, that goes against God’s nature, because God would have to lie to create the earth with the appearance of age.

The other option is both more interesting and does not conflict with God’s character. That option is to believe the days in Genesis are not given in earth’s frame of reference. Instead, they are given in a completely different frame of reference. This idea, proposed by MIT professor Gerald Schroeder, is probably not correct, but it is incredibly interesting.

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