Radioisotope dating techniques have long provided evidence for Earth’s (and the universe’s) antiquity.
Yet a recent study hints that activity deep inside the Sun may influence the decay rates of some radioisotopes. Does this mean we should throw out radiometric dating, as some proponents of a young-earth view contend? Let’s look more closely.
Nuclear processes (like decays) occur at much greater energy than the atomic interactions that govern our everyday experience. Consequently, past research demonstrated that environmental influences (high temperature, acidity, electromagnetic fields, etc.) have virtually no effect on nuclear decay rates. Scientists recently found a correlation between the decay rates of certain radioisotopes and the Earth to Sun distance and/or the solar activity, which came as a surprise.
For example, long-term measurements of decay rates from silicon-32 (at Brookhaven National Laboratory) and radium-226 (at Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt in Germany) both revealed a yearly sinusoidal variation (see image) as Earth orbited around the Sun.1 Furthermore, the data sets between the two laboratories overlap in time and show a highly improbable correlation, assuming the results are unrelated. Additionally, spikes in decay rates during some solar flares convinced the researchers that the Sun does influence nuclear processes here on Earth. While much work remains to understand and confirm these changes in decay rates, let’s assume they’re real.
Two apologetic implications come to mind.
First, if decay rates changed, would that fact negate RTB’s claim of constant laws of physics that govern the universe? Not at all. Nuclear decay rates depend primarily on fundamental constants, but the environment also influences the rate. For example, scientists routinely alter decay rates using the powerful particle accelerators that produce sufficient energy to vary the nuclear decay potentials. One specific environmental influence that may be at work here is the changing flux of neutrinos (extremely difficult to detect) that corresponds with different Earth/Sun distances or solar flare activity. (For a more serious challenge to the idea of constant laws of physics see this article or listen to this podcast.)
Second, would the supposed changing rates provide support for young-earth models? Even young-earth organizations admit that, if the radioactive decay rates are constant, these radioisotope results still give ages far greater than 6,000 to 10,000 years for objects. Their contention, however, according to the RATE study by a collaboration of young-earth creationists, is that God accelerated the decay rates of radioisotopes during either the creation week or the flood.
While these results indicate the decay rates may not be as constant as scientists assumed, they don’t help the young-earth cause. The scientists measured decay rate changes less than 0.3% of the nominal value. Young-earth models require increases in decay rates by factors of 1,000 to 1,000,000. Nothing in this research indicates changes of that magnitude would ever occur in the universe. In all likelihood, environmental changes sufficient enough to alter the decay rates at that level would wipe out humanity.
Our presence on the planet suggests divine forethought in those constant decay rates and this research demonstrates once again that the more we know about the universe the more we realize how much there is to learn.
- E. Fischbach et al, “Time-Dependent Nuclear Decay Parameters: New Evidence for New Forces?” Space Science Reviews, 145 (May 28, 2009): 285–335.