We recently received the following email question:
As a former creationist, one of the most persuasive arguments that I remember is that of polonium halos in granite. Dr. Robert Gentry claims to have discovered proof of an instantaneous creation of earth in the form of the halos of radioactive polonium in undisturbed granite. He challenges mainstream science to reproduce such an artifact in the laboratory or explain how such a thing could happen naturally. What do you think about this guy, and are his claims at all weighty?
Trinity M. Valparaiso, Florida
Thanks for the question Trinity.
I hadn’t heard of Robert Gentry before so I googled him and found the following on a Who’s Who In Creation Evolution website:
Robert V. Gentry
- Physicist and chemist
- D.Sc. (honorary) from Columbia Union College (honorary doctorate from the fundamentalist Columbia Union College)
- MASTERS in Physics from University of Florida
- Graduate work at Georgia Institute of Technology
- Often considered the world’s foremost authority on radiohalos
I then found the following quote attributed to him from a book he wrote:
“My understanding is that all the assertions in the Bible which pertain to science would be true.”
I thought I couldn’t possibly be more skeptical of his “proof” of an instantaneously created earth.
I was wrong.
Let’s get to the meat of the matter then, shall we?
What are polonium halos?
Halos in rock (called pleochroic halos or radio halos) are spherical bands of discoloration. These bands are essentially shells of radiation damage caused by the release of alpha particles. Alpha particles are a type of radiation released from unstable atoms. This radiation consists of two protons and two neutrons bound in one particle which is essentially a helium nuclei. This is a powerfully ionizing form of radiation but since it has a relatively high amount of mass, it usually doesn’t go very deep into tissue. If you swallow or inhale some of it though, you’re in a bit of trouble.
This alpha decay that atoms can undergo morphs elements into other elements. Since the number of protons determine the chemical properties of an element, ejecting two from the nucleus changes the element from say… radium to radon. A radioactive element in rock then will decay by ejecting alpha particles which leaves a distinctive ring around the element. Since the original element now has less protons, it is a different element which could also decay and leave its own distinctive ring. These sequences of alpha decay (and beta decay) can continue then from Uranium-238 to thorium to radon, then to polonium, and finally lead.
This all makes sense but how does one explain bare polonium rings in rock without any of the parent rings like uranium or thorium there as well? The simple answer is that polonium existed in the rock by itself and then decayed leaving its rings. The problem here is that polonium has a half-life measured in seconds or days. How could any polonium still exist in granite if it takes centuries for it to solidify properly? All of the polonium would have disappeared long before then. It would be like finding frozen Alka-Seltzer bubbles in ice. These bubbles are so fleeting that their existence would prove that the water had to be flash frozen for them to be in there. Gentry’s solution to this anomaly then is that the earth was created almost instantly. If the granite solidified quickly with the polonium in it, then the rings could be explained.
The problem with this is that no real scientist is going to jump to the instantly-created earth hypothesis with out at least seriously trying to disprove some of the more likely scenarios. One scenario that I came across that seems a tad more plausible to me posits the following explanation:
Uranium decays into Radon gas which migrates through cracks in the rock and then decays into polonium. This polonium is now separated from its parent element and soon decays itself making it own isolated halos. This hypothesis is supported by fact that Gentry’s Polonium halos are found near cracks in rock that contain uranium halos. In addition, they are not found in rock that does not contain uranium.
Gentry’s problems don’t end there. His research only makes sense if he examines the oldest rocks found on earth; the so-called primordial basement rocks. According to the TalkOrigins website he fails on this count:
“In Gentry’s model, any rock looking vaguely like a granite and carrying the label Precambrian is considered to be a “primordial” rock.’
In addition, amateur geologist and author J, Richard Wakefield did a little detective work and showed that one of the rock samples studied by Gentry was not from granites at all, but were taken from a much younger Precambrian metamorphic rocks
It just amazes me that people in this day and age seriously believe that the earth is only a handful of thousands of years old. Not only that, they think that one study could seriously put the deep age of the earth in doubt. This reminds me of evolution deniers who think they can collapse the theory of Evolution with a single line of reasoning or experiment. They don’t get or don’t want to get that one of the powers and essential parts of science is the multiple independent confirmations that can converge onto a theory to make it essentially unassailable (in its broad strokes at least). To seriously cast doubt on the age of the earth you’d have to not only support your theory exceedingly well, you’d also have to explain why so many different methods for dating it are wrong and why they all agree with one another remarkably well.
Good luck with that.