Friday, July 01, 2005

I don't get it

In my last post I upset some YECs. Some responded with links to technical articles that support a young earth.

Now there is one thing I want to be clear on: I certainly commend my YEC brothers and sisters for their faithfulness to the bible and to our Lord Jesus Christ. I do not question, at all, their salvation. (Some, I know from experience, question mine.)

In thinking about how to respond, I could do one of two things:
  1. Post detailed physics responses, or

  2. Post rebuttal links

The first would drive most readers away (plus I have this pesky day job). The second produces a really boring battle of links.

I have decided to do neither. I am assuming that the interested reader can do his or her own Google searches. For example, one of the topics raised was the alternative young-universe cosmology of Russell Humphreys. Googling will lead to the expected results: secular physicists and old-earth creationists claiming that Humphreys's cosmology is unsalvageable, and YECs largely (though not unanimously) supportive.

This raises an interesting question: Which group is more prone to letting their presuppositions cloud their judgment? Do secular physicists actually conspire, as some have claimed, to discard any radiometric data that points to a young earth? Or are YECs, filled with good intentions, likely to be less than critical of the science behind theories that support a young earth?

Instead of a point-counterpoint approach, I thought that I would ask my YEC friends a question: what do you make of the universe's fine tuning? I see no other conclusion from a YEC perspective other than fine tuning is either a complete mystery (if not an embarrassment) or a test.

Scientifically, fine-tuning is relevant only for an old universe. And theologically, it is evidence of God's design only for those believers who affirm an old universe.

Take stellar nuclear chemistry. One important class of fine-tuning arguments is found in the fact that the nuclear chemistry behind the life cycle of stars is exceedingly balanced and fortuitous. A minor tweak here or there to an energy level, or a small change in the values of physical constants, and stars (if they existed at all) would behave very differently—the result being that they would not seed the universe with life-essential heavy elements.

What do YECs think about such fine-tuning? In their view, God did not use secondary means (the nuclear chemistry He decreed) to seed the universe, but rather created the planets in situ. Fair enough—but what then to say about the fine tuning? Surely it would be better for the YEC view if science, puzzled, told us that there is no way exploding stars could (a) ever happen and/or (b) produce the observed quantity of heavy elements.

Such questions arise in many if not all of the cosmological fine-tuning discoveries. They are completely irrelevant for a young earth. It again pushes God into the role of a deceiver. But it is an even more insidious, two-level deception.

It's as if God decided to set up a bible vs. science test, to first order, via some variant of apparent age. And many who were weak succumbed to the fossil record, as well as the geological and astronomical data. They became atheist scientists. Then, it would appear, God decided to add, to the false evidence of age, some false evidence of His design, to test those on the fence. If the science appears not just to support an old earth but also divine design, then only the truly faithful will cling to a literalist hermeneutic for Genesis 1.

I prefer the explanation that science is a gift from God so that we can appreciate His creation. To those who ask why I need scientific evidence to support my faith, I say phooey. I don't need it, but I appreciate it. In the same sense that we all appreciate seeing God in action, either in answering prayer, healing, the miracle of birth, the courage of the faithful, and most spectacularly by regenerating the lost.

In spite of what I said: WARNING physics ahead.

I do have one physics response for commenter (and friend) Alan Gray, who counters my previous post on his blog. There he mentions, among other criticisms, this article that discusses experiments that have accelerated a form of radioactive decay. (A prevailing YEC theory is that radioactive decay occurred at faster rates in the past, leading to apparent age.) The decay in question is beta decay in which (in this case) a neutron in a nucleus decays into a proton, an electron, and a neutrino.

n→p + e + ν

(Historical note: it is called beta decay because at first the emiited particle was not identified as an electron but some unknown "beta-ray".)

The proton stays in the nucleus (bumping the nucleus up one spot in the periodic table) and the electron is emitted.

We generally think of the decay in a nucleus that is part of an atom, that is a nucleus surrounded by orbiting electrons. This means that the emitted electron has to "get by" electrons already there.

It was long understood that if one removed one or more electrons that the decay would be easier, i.e. faster. This would be especially true for nuclei that just barely beta decay (have a slow rate).

Think of it this way. Suppose you were in the bottom of a smooth well. The well is a hundred feet deep. Suppose you have some rocks to get rid of and try to toss them out of the well. The rocks have only one choice: either they get out of the well or they come back and hit you in the head. If your best toss is a hundred and one feet, then most of the time the rocks won't make it.

This is like a nucleus that just barely beta decays.

Now suppose that instead of smooth walls there are ledges at various heights. Now when you throw a stone it has other places to go. It can go out, like before, or it can land on one of the ledges.

This is like beta decay from the same nucleus but with the outer electrons removed (it is then called an ion). The emitted electron has more places to go. The decay is easier and hence faster.

This is exactly what the paper Alan referred to discusses. This effect has been seen experimentally: ions have a faster beta decay rate (of this type) than neutral atoms.

Of course, since it is being reported by Answers in Genesis, it (understandably) claims that this is an example of how science might have been tricked into believing an old earth.

Matter, of course, is not naturally ionized; it is naturally neutral. The experimenters had to create an artificial situation by ionizing atoms. Then they watched for beta decay and (to nobody's surprise) saw enhanced rates.

So far so good. But if this accelerated decay is to account for apparent age, then somehow there had to be a time when most of the universe had a surplus of ions of heavy elements. Here is how the Answers in Genesis article solves that problem:

Now, let us visualize the following situation at the beginning of Creation Week. As God creates the atoms which will subsequently be assembled into all of the matter that will constitute all of the objects in the physical universe, He first creates them all in a completely ionised state (i.e. nuclei alone). This plasma persists for several hours on the First Day, during which time bb decay freely takes place under the bare-nucleus conditions of all of the atoms. This process, though, is insufficient by itself to generate billions of years’ worth of excess 187Os. However, if there were a simultaneous weakening of the presently-existing nuclear force, as suggested by Humphreys, the Re-Os ‘clock’ would be accelerated another few orders of magnitude.

To have sufficient ions, God first created a plasma which persists for several hours. (A plasma is electrically neutral, but has the electrons unbound from the nuclei. The solar wind is a good example.) After a few hours of enhanced decay (why?) He attached the electrons to the nuclei, and the rates decreased.

There is no scientific evidence that the universe ever existed of this heavy ion plasma. Furthermore, there is no biblical basis for allocating a few of the hours of day-one to this plasma state.

The article then acknowledges that even the enhanced decay rate would have to be augmented by another controversial theory.

To me, this is a perfect example of the house-of-cards arguments YECs use.

At any rate, there are further problems. The worst might be that this is the only type of decay, of all the various forms and isotopes that are used for dating, that would be so effected. Even the cousin of this, where a proton changes into a neutron, a positron (an electron, but with positive charge) and a neutrino (moving the nucleus a step down in the periodic table):

p→n + e+ + ν

is not subject to the same rate enhancement.

So for one type of decay, and for a certain set of nuclei, a (well-understood and predicted) observation of the enhancement of the rate (for ions compared to neutral atoms) is used, via an out-of-the-æther scenario of a day-one uber-plasma, to support a young earth.

I simply don't get it.

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