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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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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.

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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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