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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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Gentry's research on radiohalos had familiarized him with a number of other unusual halo types for which no specific causative element could be determined. Because of their rarity and unusual sizes it was thought that they might have originated with an unknown type of radioactivity. When the U.S. Atomic Energy commission became aware of Gentry's research on these dwarf and giant halos, he was invited to give seminars on his work at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where scientists were conducting an intensive search for superheavy elements. Eventually he was invited to affiliate with Oak Ridge National Laboratories as a guest scientist. The initial one-year invitation ultimately stretched to thirteen years, and provided incalculable benefits for Gentry's own research as well.

The sophisticated facilities at ORNL greatly accelerated Gentry's study of polonium halos and before long more of his work was in the literature. After a second article in Science,9 a report on his investigation of lunar rock samples was published in Proceedings of the Second Lunar Science Conference.10 Then came another significant finding.

Advanced mass spectrometry techniques enabled Gentry to discover that the tiny radiocenters of polonium halos were composed of a type of lead different from any previously known. The new type of lead, greatly enriched in certain isotopes, could not be accounted for by uranium decay, but only by the decay of polonium. This was another stroke of evidence against secondary origin for the halos, and formed the basis for a third paper published in Science.11 This discovery attracted more attention than any previous report, and soon Gentry was invited to contribute an article on radioactive halos to the 1973 Annual Review of Nuclear Science.12

About this time a colleague of Gentry's privately suggested that an uncommon isomeric form of radioactivity had caused the polonium halos. Gentry investigated this hypothesis using mass spectrometry techniques and found no experimental evidence to support it. The results were published in Nature in August of 1973.13 By this time Gentry's credibility had been established sufficiently enough for him to suggest there might be cosmological implications in the existence of polonium halos. The Nature article carefully stated: "...assuming that Po was incorporated into the halo inclusion at the time of host mineral crystallization meets with severe geological problems: the half lives of the polonium isotopes are too short to permit anything but a rapid mineral crystallization, contrary to accepted theories of magmatic cooling rates."

Suggesting a rapid formation of the earth's oldest rocks, Gentry knew, would be highly provocative to many of his colleagues. Statements like this invited other scientists to refute his research if it could possibly be done. It didn't take long for several to rise to the challenge. In the June 22, 1973 issue of Science three scientists attempted to put Gentry in his place by suggesting that polonium halos did not really exist at all: "We cannot definitely rule out the existence of polonium halos, but it appears that there is no evidence requiring, or even firmly suggesting, their existence. It was realized very early that their existence would cause apparently insuperable geological problems since the relevant polonium half-life is of the order of minutes. Polonium halos would require that the polonium atoms become part of the inclusion within minutes of the formation of the polonium and that in this very short time the polonium must be so far removed from the parent uranium mass that its presence or location is no longer evident."14

The issue was open now for all to see. These scientists had identified the very root of the problem, yet in their haste to protect popular assumptions preferred, ostrich-like, to believe that polonium halos were not really there. Later in a review of another of Gentry's articles Research Communications Network noted: "To date there has been only one effort to dispute Gentry's identification of polonium halos. As it turned out, that effort might better never have been written, the authors having been impelled more by the worry that polonium halos 'would cause apparently insuperable geological problems,' than by a thorough grasp of the evidences...."15

Gentry next turned his attention to polonium halos in fluorite, a crystal that occurs in granite. Clear areas in fluorite crystals are even more impermeable to fluid infiltration than those in mica, which has a laminar structure. The halos in fluorite proved virtually identical to those in mica. This discovery fueled another article16 which was published by Science in early 1974 and provided still more evidence against a secondary origin for the polonium halos.

Gentry's position at Oak Ridge permitted him to use a variety of advanced tools and techniques in his experiments, including particle accelerators, mass spectrometers, scanning electron microscopy and x-ray fluorescence analysis. As his research continued to close one door after another on alternative explanations for polonium halos, his articles in various scientific journals became more specific in their suggestion that conventional geologic timetables might need revision.

For several years only a few scientists ventured to challenge the results of Gentry's research. Of those who did, most were unfamiliar with other phases of his work which already answered their objections. Gentry remained his own most tireless critic, carefully exploring every step of his research for new data that would explain polonium halos according to conventional geological and cosmological models. With each ensuing experiment no such data appeared, however. The only apparent explanation for the halos remained the one Gentry had suspected from the very beginning—special creation.

The critics' silence was not to last indefinitely. While many of his colleagues were still trying to divine the significance of his carefully worded conclusions, one sagely prophesied, "Gentry can be sure that, in pressing his own decidedly radical explanations, the sound and fury lie yet before him."17 It was only a matter of time.


9 Gentry, 1970. "Giant Radioactive Halos: Indicators of Unknown Radioactivity?" Science, vol. 169, p. 670.

10 Gentry, 1971. "Radioactive Halos and the Lunar Environment." Proceedings of the Second Lunar Conference, vol. 1, p. 167. Cambridge: MIT Press.

11 Gentry, 1971. "Radiohalos: Some Unique Pb Isotope Ratios and Unknown Alpha Radioactivity." Science, vol. 173, p. 727.

12 Gentry, 1973. "Radioactive Halos." Annual Review of Nuclear Science, vol. 23, p. 347.

13 Gentry, 1973. "Ion Microprobe Confirmation of Pb Isotope Ratios and Search for Isomer Precursors in Polonum Radiohalos." Nature, vol. 244, no. 5414, p. 282.

14 C. Moazed, R. M. Spector, R. F. Ward, 1973. "Polonium Halos: an Alternate Interpretation." Science, vol. 180, p. 1272.

15 S. L. Talbott, 1977. "Mystery of the Radiohalos." Research Communication Network, Newsletter No. 2.

16 Gentry 1974. "Radiohalos in Radiochronological and Cosmological Perspective." Science, vol. 184, p. 62.

17 Talbott, op. cit.

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