Mystery in the Rocks
A physicist's discovery begins an extraordinary odyssey
pride and prejudice in the scientific world.
By Dennis Crews
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Before revising his manuscript and submitting it to Nature,
Gentry had the opportunity to present the results of his work
on polonium halos to a gathering of scientists at the 1966 annual
meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington D.C.
This event proved to be pivotal for Gentry's future, for through
it his work became known to Columbia Union College in nearby
Takoma Park, Maryland. An invitation was extended for him to
affiliate with the school. Gentry gratefully accepted, and by
the summer of 1966 was able to work in a well-equipped laboratory
again. Perhaps even more gratifying than the laboratory was the
support and encouragement of the science faculty at CUC.
It wasn't long before he had accumulated enough experimental
data to revise and expand his first manuscript on polonium halos.
By omitting all references to creation, the paper successfully
passed peer review. Titled "Extinct Radioactivity and the Discovery
of a New Pleochroic Halo," it was published in Nature early in
1967.4 Earth and Planetary Science Letters, an international
science journal, published a similar paper in Amsterdam.5
Gentry's research on polonium halos had such troubling implications
for evolutionary chronology that it was necessary to exhaust
every possibility of a conventional explanation for their existence.
The possibility of a secondary origin for the halos haunted him,
and he determined to pursue this line of investigation as far
as he could.
A new technique for the examination of alpha-recoil pits in
mica had been developed recently which enabled Gentry to conduct
another series of experiments. The technique involved etching
mica specimens with acid to enlarge the tiny damage pits made
by alpha particles, so the pits could be examined by microscope.
All mica specimens contain trace amounts of uranium and thus
have a low background density of alpha-recoil pits. But if a
solution containing uranium had flowed through a rock in amounts
sufficient to leave polonium deposits behind, that specimen should
have a higher background density of uranium alpha-recoil pits
than a specimen which contained no polonium halos.
A long series of experiments using this technique finally
showed no difference in the density of background alpha-recoil
damage between specimens with polonium halos and specimens with
none. This research provided yet another piece of evidence against
the secondary origin of polonium halos, and was of sufficient
importance to form the basis of another paper which Gentry submitted
to the journal Science. The first draft of Gentry's report concentrated
on the results of his experiments, with little or no mention
of any cosmological implications.
One of the two referees who were chosen to evaluate the manuscript
approved it for publication, but the other felt Gentry had not
provided sufficient explanation for the origin of the halos.
This raised a prickly dilemma, for it seemed that speaking truthfully
might turn the referees against Gentry. But in a revised manuscript
he plainly stated "the experimental evidence indicates the inclusions
[centers] of the polonium halos contained the specific alpha
emitters responsible for the halos ... at the time when the mica
crystallized, and as such these particular halos represent extinct
The second reviewer objected to this statement, saying that
Gentry had proposed a contradictory argument—and rejected the
manuscript for publication. Gentry's statement did contradict
popular assumptions, but it also happened to be the only explanation
possible according to the data his research had uncovered. Since
the referee had been unable to fault his experimental data, Gentry
was able to request further consideration. After negotiating
with the editors of Science they agreed to let the manuscript
be revised again and assigned two new referees.
By now it seemed Gentry was picking his way through a philosophical
minefield. In the next revision he avoided statements that might
be seen as a contradiction of prevailing views, and instead veiled
the implications of the polonium halos in a series of questions.
The third reviewer approved the manuscript for publication, but
the canny fourth immediately suspected the final significance
of Gentry's research. In his review of the manuscript he wrote,
"Does he mean to imply that current cosmological (and geological)
theories are possibly so wrong that all of the events leading
from galactic, or even protosolar necleosynthesis to the formation
of crystalline rock minerals could have taken place in a few
Indeed, that was exactly what he meant to imply! He was gratified
that the experimental data spoke so plainly the reviewer had
not missed its implications. Yet this same reviewer somehow felt
that Henderson's hypothesis for a secondary origin of the polonium
still must be correct—the alternative was simply too unconventional
for him to accept. Gentry's paper was so carefully written yet
the data was so puzzling that finally the reviewer did a highly
unusual thing—he broke his anonymity and invited Gentry to contact
him personally to discuss the manuscript.
When Gentry telephoned the reviewer, who turned out to be
a world-renowned authority on radiometric dating, he cut to the
point immediately by asking Gentry's opinion about the origin
of polonium halos. Much to his relief the reviewer didn't dismiss
him when he candidly admitted believing the halos to be evidence
for creation. Instead, the expert plied Gentry with incisive
questions. After an hour the reviewer was sufficiently impressed
with the evidence to suggest certain experiments that would enable
him to further evaluate Gentry's work and its implications.
Though it may have seemed like a temporary setback, this turn
of events proved fortuitous. The experiments suggested by the
reviewer required research equipment not available at Columbia
Union College, and in the search for adequate facilities Gentry
contacted a scientist friend, John Boyle, who worked at the Oak
Ridge National Laboratory. Through Boyle's intervention Gentry
was able to acquire the use of Oak Ridge's facilities for his
experimentation. This early work began what would eventually
become a long and profitable relationship with the Oak Ridge
When the experiments were complete and the manuscript revised
yet again, Gentry visited the reviewer at his own laboratory.
The careful but fair-minded scientist made a thorough study of
Gentry's research results and concluded that there was more significance
in the polonium halos than first met the eye. He was still mystified
by the lack of evidence to support a secondary origin for the
polonium halos, but finally approved the manuscript for publication—on
the condition that it make no reference to the possibility that
the halos originated with primordial polonium. The article, "Fossil
Alpha-Recoil Analysis of Variant Radioactive Halos," was finally
published in the June 14, 1968 issue of Science.8
4 Gentry, 1967. "Extinct Radioactivity and the Discovery of a New Pleochroic Halo," Nature, vol. 213, p. 487.
5 Gentry, 1966. "Alpha Radioactivity of Unknown Origin and Discovery of a New Pleochroic Halo," Earth and Planetary Science Letters, vol. 1, p. 453.
6 Gentry, 1986. Creation's Tiny Mystery, ch. 3. Knoxville: Earth Science Associates.
8 Gentry, 1968. "Fossil Alpha-Recoil Alalysis of Certain Radioactive Halos." Science, vol. 160, p. 1228.
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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The above page was found at http://www.halos.com/book/mystery-in-the-rocks-05.htm on May 28, 2017.
Earth Science Associates