Creationism and Accelerated Decay

By Matthew Rognstad

Others had tried. to find the answer in geological processes. But Drs Humphreys and Baumgardner realized that there were too many independent lines of evidence (the variety of elements used in 'standard' radioisotope dating, mature uranium radiohalos, fission track dating and more) that indicated that huge amounts of radioactive decay had actually taken place. It would be hard to imagine that geologic processes could explain all these. Rather, there was likely to be a single, unifying answer that concerned the nuclear decay processes themselves.

Since, from the eyewitness testimony of God's Word, the billions of years that such vast amounts of radioactive processes would normally suggest had not taken place, it was clear that the assumption of a constant slow decay process was wrong (Wieland 2003).

The conclusions of the Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth (RATE) Project as summarized above signify an important shift in argumentation by many of the major institutions of young-Earth creationism such as Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research. It marks a move away from reliance on 'appearance of age' and the arguments of creationists like John Woodmoreappe (Plaisted 2002), who asserted that radioisotope dates are the result of filtering essentially random numbers through the institutional biases of science. These young-Earth creationists now argue that radioisotope decay has actually occurred, can be measured accurately, and that it would require billions of years at present rates to account for the current condition of the Earth. The scientific community has been making those very arguments for decades. The RATE team, however, because of their unshakable Biblical faith in a 6,000 year old Earth, rejects uniformitarianism (Humphreys 2005:93) and argues that the rate of decay was greatly accelerated during the first two days of Creation Week and during the year-long Flood of Noah (DeYoung 2005:150-151). This paper examines the evidence RATE cites for believing that decay has been accelerated, the proposed mechanisms for that acceleration, and several difficulties with the theory.

The RATE group identified four separate pieces of evidence for the acceleration of radioisotope decay: (1) helium accumulation in zircon crystals, (2) the existence of polonium halos, (3) isotope discordance, and (4) the presence of 14C in diamonds (Vardiman et al. 2005:766). Zircon crystals contain high quantities of uranium, which produces helium during its decay process. This helium, being a noble gas, should normally be able to escape the crystal more quickly than it would be produced by uranium decay at the present rate; this is borne out by diffusion measurements conducted by RATE. Yet helium has somehow accumulated in these zircon crystals. According to RATE, accelerated decay would explain this anomaly (Vardiman et al. 2005:740). Given that diffusion rates are known to be highly variable, it is curious that RATE would believe this clock more reliable than radioisotope decay.

Turning to the issue of radiohalos, alpha particles released during nuclear decay have been known to cause visible discoloration in rocks. RATE argues that the halos produced by various isotopes are differentiable from each other based on size and coloration. Polonium is an unstable isotope that forms from radon decay as part of the larger uranium decay series. RATE argues that they have identified polonium halos in close proximity to uranium halos. They argue that, given the short half life of polonium, these halos could only form under a condition of rapid decay and rapid cooling of magma (Vardiman et al. 2005:743-744). The accepted scientific model actually does a good job of explaining these halos. Given that almost all of uranium-238's 4.5 billion year half life results from the first step in its decay series where 238U decays to 234Th, plenty of uranium would still exist long after slow-cooling magma had solidified. After several more steps, the thorium would eventually decay to radon, which is a noble gas. Noble gases are considered slippery because they do not latch onto other isotopes; that could allow the radon to travel the small distances and create the gaps between the halos that the RATE team noted.

The third argument for acceleration offered by RATE is that of isotope discordance. They start by asserting that radioisotope dates for all isotopes in a rock should always match perfectly. RATE provides a number of examples where the dates provided by various methods fall outside the margin of error for other isotopic methods. From their samples, RATE tries to extrapolate a general discordance across all radiometric dates and offers accelerated decay as an explanation for the discrepancy. This leads them to discount all three assumptions that underlie radioisotope decay: knowable initial condition, closed system, and constant decay rate (Vardiman et al. 2005:749).

The final bit of evidence for acceleration cited by RATE is the presence of trace amounts of 14C in diamonds and other 'old' objects. Carbon-14, which has a half-life of 5,730 years, is constantly created in the atmosphere. All living things contain the same amount of 14C because they constantly ingest it. Upon death, the 14C levels begin to decrease, halving every 5,730 years. The RATE group found trace amounts of 14C in ancient coal deposits and diamonds believed to be hundreds of millions of years old based on their position in the geologic record; virtually all the 14C should have already decayed. They argue that 14C has been impervious to the acceleration of decay processes that affected other isotopes. Therefore the 50,000 year maximum date possible using carbon-14 represents an effective maximum age of the Earth because no truly ancient deposits would contain residual 14C (Vardiman et al. 2005:756). This argument makes little sense. Carbon-14, like the potassium-argon and rubidium-strontium isotope dating methods RATE indicts, is an example of beta decay. All beta decay rates should be similarly affected by any change in atomic or sub-atomic forces, so 14C would have been greatly accelerated along with 40K and 87Rb. If decay had truly been accelerated, and if 500 million years worth of decay occurred in one real year, then one would never find radiocarbon dates older than the Flood. There certainly would not be any residual carbon-14 in ancient diamonds. Therefore RATE's discovery of ancient 14C argues strongly against their proposal of accelerated decay, not for it.

The RATE team offers two mechanisms for accelerated decay. The first possibility is specific to alpha decay processes (e.g. uranium). The protons and neutrons of an atom are normally held together in the nucleus by the nuclear strong force (DeYoung 2005:144). During alpha decay, two neutrons and two protons escape the nucleus as an alpha particle. To do so, the alpha particle must have enough energy to overcome the threshold of the strong force, called the Coulomb barrier (DeYoung 2005:145). There is a finite probability that alpha particles will have the necessary energy. The RATE researchers posit that God accelerated alpha decay by weakening the strong force, thereby allowing lower energy alpha particles to escape the nucleus (Chaffin 2005:527; DeYoung 2005:146).

What about beta decay? To explain an acceleration of beta decay RATE looked to string theory, which argues that matter is made up of miniscule knots in space-time that are trillions of times smaller than subatomic particles like electrons. These knots may exist in up to ten dimensions. String theory connects the state of these invisible dimensions to the Fermi constant, upon which beta decay depends (DeYoung 2005:149). Carbon-14, postassium-40, and rubidium-87 all decay via the beta process. According to DeYoung, string theory:

could explore small, temporary adjustments of unseen dimensions, perhaps by the direct hand of the Creator. This might alter the Fermi constant and in turn, adjust nuclear decay rates significantly. There are several "ifs" in this exploration of accelerated decay and it is presented here only as an example of ongoing research (149).

Chaffin (2005:547) expands on this basic idea in the larger, more technical RATE book.

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There are, however, a number of serious difficulties with RATE's hypothesis of accelerated decay. The RATE creationists acknowledge two of the most fundamental side effects of any such acceleration: heat and radiation. Aggregated over the 4.5 billion year history of Earth, radioactive decay has produced tremendous amounts of both. The acceleration of 4 billion years of decay into the first two days of the creation week and squeezing 500 million years into the year of the Flood (DeYoung 2005:150-151) is rather problematic. The Flood acceleration alone would have released enough energy to heat the Earth to a temperature of more than 22,000° C (Snelling 2005:183), which is roughly four times the temperature of the surface of the sun (DeYoung 2005:152). That amount of energy would have caused rocks, and presumably the entire crust of the Earth, to vaporize (DeYoung 2005:152; Snelling 2005:183). Aside from the fact that the planet would no longer exist, the geologic evidence RATE cites in support of acceleration would certainly have been obliterated. Temperatures above 150-400° C would have erased the fission tracks and radiohalos, and destroyed the zircon crystals cited by RATE (DeYoung 2005:152; Snelling 2005:182). In fact, the temperature increase in the zircons would have been an order of magnitude higher than average because of their abnormally high concentration of uranium (Snelling 2005:183). Helium diffusion improves rapidly at higher temperatures, so that would seem to contradict RATE's claims about diffusion.

D. Russell Humphreys of the RATE team makes a novel suggestion regarding heat accumulation. Simply put, at the same moment God accelerated radioisotope decay, he also expanded the size of the universe twenty-fold (DeYoung 2005:153). This is an application of volumetric cooling, which is how refrigerators work by compressing and expanding gas. Humphreys argues the Bible contains scriptural evidence for two periods of cosmic expansion that coincide with RATE's proffered two periods of accelerated decay (Humphreys 2005:73). For example, Psalms 104:2 says, "Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain" (CreationWiki 2005). The problem is that volumetric cooling only works for gases, not solids. In other words, there is no way a 22,000° C Earth could have been cooled through surface conduction before it exploded (Vardiman et al. 2005:763). It seems clear that even the divine intervention to expand the universe in four dimensions proposed by Humphreys would be inadequate to solve the heat problem (Vardiman et al. 2005:763).

Humphreys actually argues that the real problem with his cosmological cooling hypothesis is that it would cool the Earth too much (Humphreys 2005:73). The uranium-rich zircon crystals would require tremendous cooling, but if the entire planet was cooled as much as required to preserve the zircon crystals, the Flood waters would have frozen, and everything aboard the ark would have died (Vardiman et al. 2005:764). Nevertheless, because he believes both that accelerated decay occurred and that he is descended from Noah's family who used the ark to survive the Flood, Humphreys is confident that a good explanation for cooling exists (Humphreys 2005:74). The presence of radiohalos similarly convinces Snelling that God intervened not only to massively accelerate radioactive decay, but also to miraculously dissipate enormous quantities of heat (Snelling 2005:184). One might wonder if that is really the most reasonable explanation.

The other major problem RATE acknowledges is that the massive amounts of radiation released by large-scale acceleration of radioisotope decay would have killed everything on the planet, including the people and animals on the ark. The lethal effect of radiation appears to be the primary reason RATE concluded that most accelerated decay occurred during the first two days of creation, before life existed (DeYoung 2005:150), and for rejecting an episode of acceleration during the Fall and Judgment (Vardiman et al. 2005:737). But the acceleration during Noah's Flood is more vexing:

There is the obvious issue of protecting the precious animal and human life on board the ark. The water barrier between the ark and the earth's rock layers could have played a major role along with divine intervention (DeYoung 2005:151).

On face, the argument that water could shield the ark from such radiation seems dubious, but actually it is rather reasonable given that open water or pool-type nuclear reactors use water for exactly that purpose (Wikipedia 2005). The real problem is that the human body itself contains enough 40K and 14C that acceleration on the scale proposed by RATE would be fatal. Since the RATE team believes that the people on the ark must have survived for any humans to exist today, they concluded that people at the time of the Flood must have contained fewer unstable isotopes (DeYoung 2005:153-154; Vardiman et al. 2005:764-765).

Another problem with RATE's hypothesis is the substantial scientific evidence that the rate of isotope decay has been constant. First, alpha and beta decay rates have proven to be impressively resistant to change when subjected to incredible temperature and pressure extremes, chemical alteration, and magnetic and electrical fields (Dalrymple 2004:59). Because alpha and beta decay are so different and depend on different forces, it seems likely that any change would have resulted in disparities between the two decay types orders of magnitude greater than those noted by RATE (Stassen 2005), yet radioisotope dating involving both decay types routinely gives consistent results (Isaak 2003). There are also several independent checks for any change in decay rates. Supernovae make excellent tests:

Supernovae are known to produce a large quantity of radioactive isotopes. These isotopes produce gamma rays with frequencies and fading rates that are predictable according to present decay rates. These predictions hold for supernova SN1987A, which is 169,000 light-years away. Therefore, radioactive decay rates were not significantly different 169,000 years ago. Present decay rates are likewise consistent with observations of the gamma rays and fading rates of supernova SN1991T, which is sixty million light-years away, and with fading rate observations of supernovae billions of light-years away (Isaak 2003; internal citations removed)

It is worth noting that supernova evidence would not be affected by a change in the speed of light (Carlip 2001), so this evidence would apply even in the case of rapid cosmic expansion. According to Stassen (2005), numerous other noticeable phenomena would be manifest if decay rates had changed; the radius of planets, the orbit of Earth and the moon, and absorption lines of quasars would all be noticeably different than they are right now. A compelling final chance for verification comes from the Oklo natural reactor, which was the site of a fission reaction 1.8 billion years ago (Carlip 2005). Research on that site has shown the fine structure constant and neutron capture to be unchanged for nearly two billion years (Isaak 2003). RATE argues that two or more variables may have been altered simultaneously to cancel out the evidence of acceleration at Oklo (Chaffin 2005:539). Methodological errors could exist in any of these phenomena, but taken together the evidence of constant decay rates is compelling (Stassen 2005).

The final question is whether RATE's arguments are scientific and logical. The most important thing to notice is that although RATE tries to scientifically explain what would need to change in order to accelerate radioisotope decay, their propositions still absolutely depend on divine intervention at every step along the way. They identified physical properties that, if altered, could affect decay rates, but that does not do anything to prove creation. Surely any being that can create the universe and everything in it in six days would not depend on the existence of some physical property in order to act; the whole point is that God is omnipotent. Talking about string theory, general relativity, and the nuclear strong force dresses creationism up in its scientific best, but it is still creationism and utterly depends on a literal interpretation of the Bible and omnipotent supernaturalism. As stated in the conclusion of RATE's detailed findings:

The basic problem is that we do not have enough information about how God managed these processes. And, even if we had more information, how would we describe them in current scientific terms? All of these events were supernatural, if not in kind, at least in terms of energetics and speed (Vardiman et al 2005:761).

Then why attempt to describe these admittedly unscientific ideas in a scientific manner at all? There is also a fundamental epistemological problem: they argue that they came into the project with no preconceived ideas about what the data would show (Vardiman et al. 2005:765), but they did have unshakable faith in a biblical interpretation that mandates a 6,000 year-old Earth (DeYoung 2005:174; Morris 2005:xxvi-xxvii; Vardiman 2005:2-3; Vardiman et al. 2005:738-739). They may not have known how specific experiments would turn out, but they did know how they would interpret the results. Their conceptual framework was basically a one-way ratchet. If they found evidence to support their ideas, then God used a natural process to accelerate decay rates. If not, he must have used an invisible method (Vardiman et al. 2005:763). It was never a question whether God created everything 6,000 year ago; it was only about how to make the best case for young-Earth creation. It is worth remembering that the RATE group was formed with the expressed purpose of discrediting radioisotope dating (Vardiman 2005:2). Additionally, how does this new acceleration argument make God any less deceptive than the standard 'appearance of age' argument does? Why would God create a young Earth and then go through the great trouble of accelerating decay to make it appear old (DeYoung 2005:152)? Would it not be a lot simpler to just make it look old in the first place?

The RATE team certainly brings a new level of professional qualifications and technical detail to creationist arguments. The helium accumulation in zircon crystals and residual carbon-14 they documented are definitely interesting findings. It is, however, far from clear that they actually support the idea of accelerated decay, especially when the heat generated would have erased all the evidence they found. RATE unfortunately relies on supernatural intervention to initiate the acceleration of radioisotope decay and then further depends on miracles to overcome the daunting heat and radiation created by that acceleration. That places the RATE arguments well outside the realm of science (Vardiman et al. 2005:736). While the RATE members identified the physical constants that would need to be modified in order to shrink geologic time, it is unclear what additional credibility that adds to their argument since it is still fundamentally about divine intervention. Though accelerated decay is billed as an improvement on 'appearance of age,' the two are substantially similar in their implications.

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