A physicist's discovery begins an extraordinary odyssey
pride and prejudice in the scientific world.
By Dennis Crews
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Curiously enough, it was an unexpectedly sympathetic figure
who first responded to these findings. Soon after publication
of the Science report Gentry received a letter from Raphael Kazmann,
professor of civil engineering at Louisiana State University.
He frankly expressed admiration for Gentry's work: "I have been
patiently scanning the letters' section of Science since the
publication by you and your colleagues of your findings on radiohalos.
The silence is deafening—I think it can be described as 'stunned
silence'.... We are indebted to you and your colleagues for your
painstaking observation, the careful wording of your paper, and
the courage you have manifested in presenting evidence that contravenes
the conventional wisdom of the geological profession."
In a follow-up letter Kazmann informed Gentry of a conference
being planned by LSU on the age of the earth. The symposium,
which dealt with various aspects of time measurement and the
age of geologic formations, was held in April of 1978. Gentry,
along with four other speakers, was invited to make a presentation.
A report of the proceedings was written by Professor Kazmann
and published subsequently in Geotimes, a monthly publication
of the American Geological Institute,19 and EOS, a weekly publication
of the American Geophysical Union.20 Kazmann's report eloquently
summarized both the substance and implications of Gentry's research
and brought it before a much larger segment of the geological
community than had been aware of it until that time. It also
jolted the scientific community out of their "stunned silence."
A letter by the eminent geochronologist Paul Damon, published
by EOS, began the rejoinder: "I was dismayed by Raphael G. Kazmann's
conclusion...that essentially casts in doubt the entire science
of geochronology, on the basis of an absurd interpretation of
the origin of 'polonium' halos in minerals observed by Robert
Gentry."21 Damon could not easily argue with the existence or
even Gentry's identification of the polonium halos, but objected
primarily to his association of the halos with primordial polonium
rather than secondarily derived polonium, and to his identification
of Precambrian granite as earth's Genesis rocks.
In order for any hypothesis to be considered scientifically
tenable Gentry knew that it must theoretically be capable of
being falsified; in other words, there must be some objective
way to prove, using known physical laws in a controlled experiment,
if it is false. Failure to prove a hypothesis false by such a
test would not necessarily constitute proof that it was true,
but would validate it as a credible hypothesis. One major objection
to the concept of special creation had always been that since
known physical laws were not adequate to account for the event
it was considered unfalsifiable and consequently, unscientific.
Since Gentry was suggesting publicly that halos in granite were
caused by primordial polonium, it was imperative to establish
a practical falsification test for his hypothesis.
It occurred to Gentry that there was a test that could establish
the soundness of his hypothesis. If the uniformitarian principle
were true, the physical processes that governed the crystallization
of ancient granites would operate in the same fashion today.
And if they did, it should be possible to duplicate the process
of granite formation in a modern scientific laboratory. On this
basis, he responded to Damon: "... I would consider my thesis
essentially falsified if and when geologists synthesize a hand-sized
specimen of a typical biotite-bearing granite and/or a similar
size crystal of biotite. I will likewise relinquish any claim
for primordial 218Po halos when coercive evidence (not just plausibility
arguments) is provided for a conventional origin—and in this
respect I will consider my thesis to be doubly falsified by the
synthesis of a biotite which contains just one 218Po halo (some
of my natural specimens contain more than 104 Po halos/cm3)."22
Such a test is reasonable since the basic chemical elements
of granite are known, and the temperatures necessary to bring
granite to a liquid melt are within the capabilities of a number
of laboratories. "Synthetic" rock produced by such a melt has
been formed before, but never with the unique coarse-grained
texture and crystal structure of a granite. Gentry genuinely
hoped that his colleagues would examine his published work in
the spirit of scientific inquiry and either respond with contrary
evidence, or at least admit the existence of valid scientific
evidence for creation. Neither was to happen.
Like the bellicose rumblings of a man awakened from sleep,
the reaction of the establishment was neither rational nor sweet.
Soon after Gentry's challenge was published another respected
geochronologist, Dr. Derek York of the University of Toronto,
published a sharply critical article in EOS.23 York produced no
experimental data of his own, but he chastised Gentry for not
accepting Henderson's hypothesis of a secondary origin for polonium
halos. York's attack was especially troublesome for it failed
to address a variety of significant anomalies Gentry's research
had uncovered, and made him appear irresponsible and ignorant
of past work in the field. In fact Gentry's research and methodology
had been scrupulous, and York could hardly have been unaware
of this, having also been a participant in the LSU conference.
Appallingly, even after such an unfair attack it took almost
a year and much persuasion before the editors of EOS permitted
Gentry to respond in print to the specific misrepresentations
York's article contained. Suddenly polonium halos seemed to be
a hot potato that nobody wanted to touch. The quality of Gentry's
research was a matter of public record; now the implications
of his work were known also, and had been branded as heresy.
To objective observers, the face-off had similar earmarks to
a controversy that happened 400 years ago to a man who had observed
that the earth orbited the sun, and not vice versa. His name
was Galileo, and he had been excommunicated for his efforts.
Gentry was fully prepared for his work to face whatever scrutiny
the scientific establishment wished to give it, but in reality
it was the objectivity and integrity of the scientific establishment
itself which soon would be on trial. Would they fare as well?
19 Raphael G. Kazman, 1978. "It's About Time: 4.5 Billion Years." Geotimes, vol. 23, p. 18.
20 Kazman, 1979. "Time: In Full Measure." EOS Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, vol. 60, p. 21.
21 Paul E. Damon, 1979. "Time: Measured Responses." EOS, vol. 60 p. 474.
22 Gentry, 1979. "Polonium Halos," EOS, vol. 60, p. 514.
23 Derek York, 1980. "Polonium Halos and Geochronology." EOS, vol. 61, p. 617.
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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