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Chapter 1: Radiohalos and the Age of the Earth

Like most students attending state universities in the fifties I was immersed in the theory of evolution in a first- year biology class. The professor argued persuasively in favor of biological evolution of life over immense periods of time. He presented evolution as the inevitable outworking of the natural laws of the universe, a theory that could be explained in terms of mechanisms observable today. It was the only explanation of origins presented in that class and throughout the remainder of my university curriculum.

I was one of the many Americans brought up in a conservative religious environment which conflicted with the evolutionary concepts taught at the university. However, my convictions were not strong enough to raise questions about the inconsistencies between Genesis and evolution. Students who did were not always treated with respect. As an aspiring scientist, the wisest course was to shun anything controversial. Just as millions of Americans nightly trust their favorite television news commentators to be objective and truthful, my classmates and I trusted that our education was giving us the whole story. Scientific evidence for Genesis was never mentioned; we assumed none existed.

Evolution as a Total Framework

The biological arguments for evolution were not sufficiently convincing for me to become an evolutionist. The final persuasion came several years later when I enrolled in a graduate physics course in cosmology, a field which deals with the origin and development of the universe. The course focused on the Big Bang model, so named because it pictures the universe as having its beginning in a gigantic primeval explosion.

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In some respects this theory appealed to me philosophically. It was fascinating to think that science could probe the ultimate beginning of the universe, and this tended to overshadow many uncertainties in the theory. Yet a major question remained: A basic tenet of physics is that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. But the standard Big Bang theory supposes that absolutely nothing existed before it occurred billions of years ago — neither matter, nor space, nor even time itself. Logically, then, if the Big Bang had occurred at all, it had to involve the creation of matter. According to the laws of physics this was an impossibility. Here was a fundamental contradiction that I was unable to resolve. Was it realistic to believe the universe had evolved from an event for which there was no scientific explanation?

One day in class the discussion focused on these issues. Sensing an uneasiness developing about the entire concept, the professor mentioned that decades earlier a Catholic theologian, Georges Lemaitre, had postulated a possible solution. Lemaitre, who was also a cosmologist, suggested that God might have initiated the Big Bang. Why not, I thought. After all, God can do anything: He could have started the Big Bang. The final exam for the course was to calculate when the Big Bang had occurred. My result was 5.7 billion years ago, which was considered the right answer at that time. (In the last three decades this figure has escalated to about 17 billion.)

I kept that final exam as a reminder of how much my views about origins had changed during my collegiate days. My university education had transformed me into a theistic evolutionist, one who believed that God intended the Genesis account of creation to be an allegory picturing the total evolution of the cosmos. The pieces of the puzzle now seemed to fall into place—the six days of creation were just six vast, indefinite periods of time. The biological evolution of life on earth was intertwined with the geological evolution of our planet, and everything was traceable to the mystical Big Bang. Science and God were really together after all, and I could still believe in a God who always told the truth.

After receiving my M.S. in physics from the University of Florida in 1956, I became involved in military applications of nuclear weapons effects at Convair-Fort Worth (later Lockheed-Martin). Two years late I continued the same work at what was then the Martin Company in Orlando, meanwhile zealously defending evolution whenever the occasion arouse.

Then someone confronted me with a major obstacle to my belief in a God of truth and my allegorical acceptance of Genesis. He pointed out that God had rewritten the Genesis record of creation in one of the Ten Commandments.

[p. 13]

For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day. . . (Exodus 20:11)

The context of this passage seemed to indicate that the "days" were literal, not figurative. If this were true, I could no longer associate the six days of creation with six long geological periods of the earth's development, and my basis for believing in theistic evolution would be negated. This was disturbing. Were the Commandments allegorical as well? Where did it all stop? Was anything that God said reliable? Was He really a God of truth? Did He even exist? My package plan uniting God and science seemed to have collapsed. Somehow I had to find time to reinvestigate the scientific evidences for evolution. This long-term goal caused me to re-evaluate my work in the defense industry. For the next two years I taught at the University of Florida and pondered the question of origins while my wife completed her degree in mathematics.

The Question of Origins Reopened

Again I examined the evidence, trying to determine which factors were most important in leading me to accept evolution. It seemed ironic that I had accepted a theological solution (God initiating the Big Bang) to remedy a crucial defect in a supposedly scientific theory (matter and energy from nothing). This brought to mind the supposition that the earliest stars had accumulated from matter synthesized in the Big Bang. The problem was that fragments of an ordinary explosion don't reaccumulate. Then why would matter formed in the greatest of all possible explosions ever reunite to form stars? My doubts about this were later confirmed when I learned an astronomer had said, "If stars did not exist, it would be easy to prove that this is what we expect" (Aller and McLaughlin 1965, 577). And what caused trillions of stars to cluster into the highly ordered systems observed in different galaxies? Could all this have resulted by chance from such a vast homogeneous expansion of matter?

Coming closer to home, how reasonable was it to believe that the origin of our planet was just the last phase in the evolutionary development of the universe? The Big Bang is presumed to have produced just hydrogen and helium, only two of the ninety-two elements of the earth's crust. Where, then, did the remaining ninety elements supposedly originate? Theoretically they came from thermonuclear fusion reactions that occurred billions of years ago deep inside certain stars. In this scenario, space became lightly sprinkled [p. 14] with these other elements when those stars later exploded (supernovae). Assuming all this, how did supernova remnants from throughout the vast reaches of interstellar space reaccumulate to become the raw matter for the solar system? My cosmology course never explained this any more than it explained how stars could develop from the Big Bang. And just how valid was the idea that the planets had their origin in an enormous ring of gases surrounding the sun? What produced the gaseous ring? And what justification was there for believing the earth had its beginning when part of that ring coalesced into a hot, molten sphere—the proto-earth?

Yet, one piece of scientific evidence lent credibility to the entire scenario. My training in physics had led me to place unquestioning confidence in the radiometrically determined age of the earth. These data apparently provided a direct link between the earth's geological evolution and the presumed evolutionary development of the universe. According to radiometric dating techniques, the oldest rocks on earth formed several billion years ago when a hot, molten proto-earth began to cool. Timewise this fitted plausibly into the Big Bang framework. My earlier acceptance of the Big Bang scenario, including biological evolution and the geological evolution of the earth, hinged on my belief that radiometric dating techniques established an ancient age for the earth. But was my belief well founded? It was time to do some critical thinking about the assumptions used in these techniques.

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