A physicist's discovery begins an extraordinary odyssey
pride and prejudice in the scientific world.
By Dennis Crews
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Independent research is costly and difficult apart from the
sophisticated laboratory facilities of a modern university, but
Gentry was persevering. In a makeshift laboratory at home he
began to study all the radiohalo specimens he could find, funding
his research by working as a substitute high school math teacher.
Patiently and meticulously he gathered data and catalogued the
specimens according to type and quality.
Henderson had named the anomalous halo types he had observed
A, B, C and D halos. Of all the halo types that had been documented,
the ones that commanded Gentry's attention first were the ones
most different from the others. The D halos were smaller than
the others, with only a single fuzzy disc instead of a series
of rings. Gentry split D specimens so that the halo centers were
on the surface, then poured a special liquid photographic emulsion
over the surface. When the emulsions were developed after a time
and inspected microscopically, tiny alpha-emission trails were
found radiating from the centers. This demonstrated that the
centers were not extinct at all, but still radioactive.
Further research indicated that the D halos were simply uranium
halos in early stages of development. It was a previously unknown
but rather unsurprising bit of information, since the half-life
of uranium-238 is calculated to be 4.5 billion years. Next Gentry
turned his attention to the A, B and C halos. Henderson had
believed these halos to be caused by alpha radioactivity from
three isotopes of the element polonium, all members of the uranium
decay chain. He theorized that some time in the past, water or
some other solution containing uranium and its daughter elements
must have flowed through tiny cracks in the rock and enough polonium
had accumulated at certain points along the way to form halos.
He had suggested that his hypothesis for this secondary mode
of halo origins be tested, but World War II had intervened and
the research was dropped.
Gentry's measurements confirmed that the rings were indeed
produced by radioactivity from polonium isotopes. But the more
he studied the specimens, the greater problems there seemed to
be with Henderson's hypothesis for their origin. Close examination
revealed many halos in solid areas that were free of any fissures
or pathways by which radioactive atoms could have penetrated
the rock. Further, there was no discoloration or any other typical
evidence of uranium having flowed through the rock previously.
Ultra-sensitive testing detected only minute traces of uranium
in the surrounding rock—the same amount that existed throughout
all mica specimens.
At last, all attempts to confirm Henderson's theory of a secondary
origin for the polonium halos failed. Emulsion tests had shown
the radioactivity of polonium halo centers to be extinct, which
was expected from isotopes with such brief half-lives as polonium.
For Henderson this had posed no great problem—but now that he
had disproven Henderson's hypothesis, a profound new dilemma
appeared. Polonium atoms decayed so rapidly there was no conventional
way to account for their having existed in the rock at all.
The longest-lived polonium isotope, polonium-210, has a half-life
of 138.4 days. Two beta-emitting elements precede polonium-210
in the decay chain, the longest lasting of which has a half-life
of 22 years. If either of these parent elements were deposited
in rock, the halo would begin to form as soon as the beta-emitting
parents had decayed into polonium, an alpha-emitter. Polonium-214,
which has a half-life of 164 microseconds, is preceded by two
beta-emitters with respective half-lives of only 27 and 20 minutes.
And polonium-218 has a half-life of just three minutes—with no
beta progenitor at all. Thus polonium-218 would have to be deposited
inside solid rock the same moment it came into existence, in
order to form a halo. Now he clearly saw why Henderson had suggested
a secondary mode of origin for polonium halos.
To find radiohalos in granite caused by such short-lived isotopes
as polonium was an utter scientific paradox, he realized. Why?
Radiohalos can form only in solid rock. Much of the granite encasing
the polonium halos was Precambrian, which is believed by most
scientists to have taken millions of years to cool from its molten
state. Since so few of the rocks which encased the halos had
clefts or passages by which polonium atoms could have entered,
the polonium had to have existed from the very formation of the
rock itself. Yet polonium isotopes have an extremely fleeting
existence, and would decay away long before even a small chunk
of molten granite could cool and solidify. Was this the kind
of discovery the head of the physics department had feared he
All the evidence indicated that the polonium had originated
concurrently with the formation of the granite itself. Yet if
it had, according to conventional science it quickly would have
decayed away, and in the molten primordial mass its telltale
halos never would have formed. Was it irresponsible to consider
that the tiny radiohalos—a minor, overlooked mystery for so many
decades—might be evidence of instantaneous creation locked into
the earth's crust? And of crucial importance—was it possible
that he had overlooked something that could provide a more conventional
explanation for the halos?
For readers interested in a more comprehensive treatment of this story, Robert Gentry's book, Creation's Tiny Mystery, is available for $18 (U.S.) + S/H.
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