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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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During Gentry's tenure as a guest scientist at Oak Ridge, much of his salary had been provided with grant funds from both private sources and the National Science Foundation. In 1979, following customary guidelines, he submitted another proposal to the NSF for further investigation of polonium halos in granite. Enough of his prior research had been published to forcefully defend the relevance of his proposal, so this time he clearly stated the implications of his work with regard to creation. Five of the six scientists who reviewed the proposal gave it a "poor" rating, and it went down in flames. Responding with an emotional vehemence that was most unscientific, these reviewers faulted Gentry for failing "to look for alternative explanations of these halos," calling his interpretation of them "speculative" and "ridiculous." They altogether ignored the ten years he had spent in painstaking search of a conventional explanation for the halos, suggesting that the incongruities he had found might be solved by other researchers "with greater objectivity." Unfortunately no such researchers came forth to tackle the mystery.

The peer reviews also provided a curious snapshot of scientific logic in response to perceived threat. One reviewer launched a baffling non-sequitur by agreeing that Gentry was "probably the world's foremost expert on the observation and measurement of radiohalos. He is remarkably tenacious in the pursuit of certain observations which are difficult to explain. His further work will result in publication. In the past he has seized on several quite new techniques.... However, his researches seem to have reached a dead end."24

If his further work would result in publication, how could his research have reached a dead end? Was it because he dared to suggest that creation might resolve the mystery in the rocks? Could it be that the reviewer was afraid of what Gentry might publish in the future, and intended to prevent further research by denying him grant funds? Another reviewer rebuked Gentry for not accomplishing the work of generations in constructing an entirely new cosmology, integrating each of the scientific disciplines in detail while he was at it: "[Gentry] does not discuss the enormous amount of conflicting evidence which ascribes a long process of evolution of the universe, the earth, life on earth, etc. to the present state. If he wishes to propose a new framework for cosmology, he should describe it in detail, with all of its supporting evidence, implications, critical observations which could test it against the 'currently accepted cosmological and geological framework....'"25

Such criticism served only as a smokescreen for the real issue. The reviewers could find no conventional way to explain the existence of the halos. Without such an explanation the uniformitarian principle, that wonderful philosophical glue that held their own carefully constructed cosmological system together, disappeared. It was not Gentry's responsibility to salvage their belief system; a scientist is an observer of the physical universe, not a philosopher. Scientific theories arise from observation, and when new observations falsify previously held theories those theories must be modified or discarded.

Nevertheless in classic medieval fashion, the establishment showed a preference for hanging the messenger rather than heeding the message. They justified their rejection by calling Gentry's work irrelevant and repetitive, and some critics even impugned his reliability because he had been objective enough to modify his own theories on superheavy elements as his and his colleagues' research had progressed. Despite repeated attempts, Gentry never again received research funding from the National Science Foundation.

In 1981 the Arkansas state legislature passed Act 590, a bill requiring "balanced treatment of creation-science and evolution in public schools." A cry of alarm went up from evolutionists everywhere. They rallied under the banner of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of the act. The trial was set for December 7 at the Federal District Court in Little Rock.

Two months before the trail date the Deputy Attorney General called Robert Gentry and asked him to testify as an expert witness for the State of Arkansas. It would be a momentous decision. Gentry realized that his cooperation with the state in this trial would likely sever whatever support remained for him in the scientific establishment. Was the truth about polonium halos important enough to sacrifice whatever was left of his career? His silence, he believed, would only contribute to the suppression of facts, which in turn would rob people of the opportunity to choose intelligently what to believe. He agreed to testify.

24 Gentry, 1986. Creation's Tiny Mystery, chapter 6. Knoxville: Earth Science Associates.

25 Ibid.

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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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