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Mystery in the Rocks

A physicist's discovery begins an extraordinary odyssey through
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 natural radioactivity."6

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 minutes?"7

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 National Laboratory.

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.

7 Ibid.

8 Gentry, 1968. "Fossil Alpha-Recoil Alalysis of Certain Radioactive Halos." Science, vol. 160, p. 1228.

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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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