Commentary on Variable Radioactive Decay Rates

Young-earth creationists hold a tender place in my heart. Though I don’t agree with their timeline of creation, I still respect their work and find parts of their effort to harmonize science and Genesis informative and helpful. I do, however, have my concerns and offer the following comments on specific young-earth creationist ideas in regards to radioactive decay rates.

radioactive-geiger-1The radioactive dating method works under the following two assumptions: (1) scientists know the abundance of isotopes present at the beginning of a material’s formation; and (2) the decay rate is constant over time. Young-earth creationists disagree with the latter assumption. I have observed that young-earth proponents usually attempt to explain Earth’s appearance of old age (4.5 billion years) by promoting the hypothesis that radioactive decay rates change over time Still, it seems they have yet to find a scientific explanation for these variable decay rates.

Support and Concern for Variable Decay Rate Hypothesis
On July 24, 2012, a nuclear physics preprint was released by Jere H. Jenkins and his team of researchers. They claimed that radioactive decay rates of certain isotopes vary by a few percents under the influence of solar flares.1 The question is, is it possible for young-earth creationists to use these findings as scientific support for the variable decay rate hypothesis?

Radioactive decay, or loss of energy, is a type of nuclear interaction caused by the weak force. The decay rate is proportional to the square of a fundamental physics constant called the weak coupling constant. Both the standard model (theory of electromagnetic, and weak and strong nuclear interactions) and supersymmetric model predict that the weak coupling constant can “run” (or vary) with the energy of nuclear reaction (typically 0.5–1 percent variation for every 10-fold interaction energy change).  Therefore, the average 3 percent recurring change in radioactive decay rate reported in the preprint corresponds with a minimum spike of a million-fold solar energy fluctuation on Earth. Needless to say, this kind of solar energy fluctuation is unrealistic. Consequently, using the weak coupling constant as an explanation for solar influence on decay rates is ruled out by default.

Instead, Jenkins and his team propose solar neutrinos (products of nuclear fusion) as the means to influence radioactive decay rates on Earth. In radioactive decay, specifically beta decay, a beta particle (electron emitted from the radioactive nucleus) and an anti-neutrino are emitted. According to the quantum field theory, every particle has an anti-particle. In this case, an anti-neutrino is the anti-particle of a neutrino. Neutrinos interact with matter at an extremely small probability. For this reason, it is highly unlikely that solar neutrinos would affect the decay rates of isotopes on Earth—making Jenkins’ proposal hard to believe. Putting this fact aside, based on a physics model called “crossing symmetry,” anti-neutrinos can, in principle, push the beta decay reaction backward while neutrinos push it forward. The Sun creates about 10,000 times more neutrinos by nuclear fusion than anti-neutrinos by nuclear fission. However, anti-neutrinos are closer to what Jenkins needs for the model.

Furthermore, even if crossing symmetry applies, it is uncertain whether the kinematics and ratio of solar neutrinos and anti-neutrinos will be accurate enough to produce the symmetric data pattern of decay rate fluctuation reported by Jenkins. In fact, Jenkins and his team attempted to verify the neutrino-mediated solar influence hypothesis, but their experiments came up short.

In summary, the problems with the idea of solar influence on decay rate are the following:

  1. Only some isotopes exhibit variable decay rates. According to the physics principle that causes variable decay rates, what influences some isotopes should influence all of them, not just a few. Therefore, it is an inconsistency.
  2. Almost all other experiments do not detect any variable decay rate.
  3. There is no known physics explanation for solar influence on nuclear decay rates; and though it does not necessarily mean the data is invalid, it does not provide an obvious reason to believe it.

Given all these points, it is sensible to suspect that the data reported by Jenkins was a “false alarm” created by subtle systematic errors.

In the end, we don’t have enough solid evidence of solar influence on nuclear decay rates. Rational logic tells us that the decay rates of isotopes 6,000 years ago could not be much faster than they are today. Currently, the world average for terrestrial background radiation is about 3 millisieverts per year. (1 sievert is equivalent to 1 joule of radiative energy delivered to 1 kilogram of mass.) If 5 billion years of Earth’s history is compacted into 10,000 years, the background radiation coming from radioactive decay of terrestrial isotopes must scale up accordingly for a consistent radioactive dating method of the oldest rock on Earth. As a rough estimate of this idea, in a young-earth model, Adam and Eve had to receive a 3×5,000,000,000/10,000=1,500,000 millisieverts dose of radiation. The lethal dose is 4,500 millisievert per year. This estimate infers that there was enough radiation in the Garden of Eden to nuke Adam and Eve more than 300 times, at least.

Given all these physics problems with the young-earth model, there doesn’t seem to be a strong enough theological incentive to warrant opposition of an old Earth. From my observation, when there is nothing left to say, young-earth creationists continue to fall back on the argument that God can do anything. But God will not do anything that contradicts his character or conflicts with his other work. Yes, he can do things quickly (e.g. the various signs and wonders in the Bible), but acting quickly may not always be in his ultimate plan. We see in the Bible that God took a long time to fulfill his promise of bringing the Messiah to Earth. Now, after almost 2,000 years, we are still waiting for the Messiah to return. There is enough biblical data to show that God doesn’t always finish things instantaneously. Creation could very well be one of those things that God took his time to complete.


11 26 12_AlfredTang_BioPhotoAlfred Tang

Alfred Tang received his PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Wisconsin. He also serves as a postdoctoral researcher at Baylor University, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Kansas State University.


5 thoughts on “Commentary on Variable Radioactive Decay Rates

  1. Hi Bob, your comments are well taken. Your assumptions are (1) that I cannot observe what happened billions of years ago and therefore have no right to claim knowledge and (2) that it is wrong to harmonize science and the Bible. On the first point, let me ask you this way: You believe that God created the universe 7000-10000 years ago. Can you observe what happened 7000-10000 years ago? By applying your reasoning, you have no right to believe the Young Earth position neither. On the second point, conservative theologians have been integrating science and the Bible for a long time. Systematic theology actively integrates all fields of knowledge–both biblical and extra-biblical knowledge–to form a unified coherent understanding of God and his creation. Biblical theology integrates ancient near Eastern languages, archaeology, history and biblical manuscripts to form a holistic understanding of the Bible. Every Bible student has to learn the principles of hermeneutics in seminary. Hermeneutics essential teaches Bible students of the importance of integrating various background knowledge when interpreting the Bible. As you can see, from the beginning of Christendom, the discipline of Christian faith does not form an isolated existence that is independent from non-biblical sources but on the contrary tries to actively engage them. Having said, we need God’s wisdom in filtering secular information as we actively engage in the integration of science and faith. For example, one of the elements in secular science that I (and other scholars at RTB) reject is biological evolution. There is a major difference between biological and cosmological evolution. Biological evolution asserts the idea that man descend from apes which directly contradicts the Genesis creation account of man being created in the image of God. Cosmological evolution the way I understand it is not really evolution in the strictest sense because God guides the development of the cosmos by setting up the precise initial conditions through fine tuning. Anyhow cosmological “evolution” does not contradict any biblical doctrine and is therefore opposite to biological evolution in character. As per cosmological evolution (or unfolding), God can take a long time or a very short time to perform a miracle. Time does not conflict with God’s omnipotence.

  2. Mr. Tang. I appreciate your hard work and dedication to achieve your doctorate in the field of science and biblical studies. Furthermore, I am happy with your desire to share your findings with us. Your opening statement is precisely why I and many others disagree with your beliefs. They are simlply that, your belief, not based on the Scriptures, but rather your scientific observation. Mr. Tang, have you ever observed one hundred years or a million for that matter. The answer to that is a resounding NO. Now lets consider one million or even a billion. What standard of measurement are you using? Well, I have it on good authority that science bases it standard on IT’S OWN WAY OF THINKING AND STANDARD. I wrote it this way not to yell but rather to draw your attention to the problem. See, the whole problem is that science leaves God out because it knows what Gods word says and it can’t rectify itself with the word of God so it disregards it. In a lame attempt to harmonize the two we, as humans, invent things like the gap theory. Lets look at it this way. I have a torque wrench that is calibrated to one foot pound. Every time I tighten something down the wrench not me, dictates when to stop the force as not to sheer off the fastener. The obsrevation can be quite misleading if I believe the torque wrench is the standard and not the one who calibrated it. thats what science has done. It has made the torque wrench, earth, science, observation, and mans way of thinking the standard and not the one Who designed it and calibrated it with its perameters. In other words the standards are not based on your observations but rather the one who created them. Now, with that said, lets look at it this way. God is the One who created everything, therefore, we must observe everything through his standards and observations not our own. Hence, we have the flawed thinking of science. It makes the standard, then observes things with its own standards in mind, and then comes to its own conclusions based on it’s own set of rules, not Gods. Thats not scientific study and obsrevation, thats a religion. So in conclusion, what we have is not an attemp to harmonize Scripture and science but rather a full on assult to strip scripture from society and take God and minamalize Him or at best trivialize Him and make Him and scripture irrelevant. This is satanic and an attack from the pit of hell. I don’t wish to insult you because you are my brother in the Lord but I think you have been misled by your field and should read and study more of the Bible.

  3. I believe that the earth is 4.5 billion years old but Adam and Eve were created only several thousand years ago. Old earth creationists typically take the word “day” in Genesis 1 to be a long period of time. I take “day” in Genesis 1 to be a 24 hour day. However there were millions of years between the consecutive creation days. I call it the Multiple Gap Theory which was the topic of my Master of Divinity thesis.

  4. All this technical explanation sounds good but you leave out one very important fact found in Genisis. God created Adam and Eve as adults not babies. Could the Almighty God create an earth that appears, by sciences observation not Gods standard, to be billions of years old when in fact it is only seven thousand years old.

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