email - November 2006

Young Earth Astronomy

Is it science or philosophy?

Thad sent us a very long email asking about young earth proofs and the evolutionists’ rebuttals to those proofs. It had to do with things like the amount of helium in the atmosphere, dust on the moon, size of the sun, global warming, short-term comets, and other things. It would take a full column to deal with each one in detail.

There was one thing that all these arguments had in common. The common thread was that in all these arguments it is not possible for you, personally, to do an experiment that confirms or denies the theory. You have to depend on what some scientist says. Some scientists say, “yes,” and some scientists say, “no.” How do you know which one to believe? The natural human tendency is to believe the scientist who confirms your previously held point of view.

Science vs. Philosophy

We have said repeatedly that science deals with what we know, and philosophy deals with what we think. Science depends upon repeatable experiments. Philosophy depends upon skillful rhetoric. When you look at most age-of-the-earth arguments, they are scientifically inconclusive. Whether you believe them or not depends primarily upon whether you are inclined to believe them or not.

Helium

Consider the helium in the atmosphere argument. Uranium in the ground is slowly decaying. As it decays, it ejects alpha particles, which are really ionized helium atoms. Over millions of years, some creationists say, a lot more helium would be released into the atmosphere than we find in the atmosphere today. The conclusion is that the Earth is only a few thousand years old.

How would you measure the amount of helium escaping from the ground into the air? Theoretically one could build an air-tight container covering many square miles and measure the helium in it. Then, 50 years later, one could measure the amount of helium in it and determine the rate at which helium escaped from the earth, per square mile, per year. Practically, however, nobody could do this. So, one would have to find some indirect way to measure the amount of helium produced.

One could use a Geiger counter to detect the number of alpha particles being emitted at a particular location on the surface of the Earth, but that’s dicey. One might be able to shield the Geiger counter from cosmic radiation so that the measurement of alpha particles from the Earth isn’t contaminated by the radiation of alpha particles from space, but that doesn’t solve a bigger problem.

Uranium prospectors use Geiger counters to find uranium deposits by looking for places where the radiation is the highest. This works because uranium isn’t evenly distributed over the surface of the Earth. Therefore, if the estimate of helium production is based on a single measurement, it will differ significantly depending upon where the measurement was taken. It would be better to take lots of estimates and average them, but how do we know that the estimates accurately reflect the actual amount of helium produced by radioactive decay inside the Earth? The fact is, we don’t.

So, it all comes down to faith in the scientists who have claimed to have calculated the amount of helium produced inside the Earth that is released to the atmosphere. The scientists are only human. They may have taken their measurements too close, or too far, from massive uranium deposits. Whether you believe the scientists or not depends to a great degree on whether they confirm what you intrinsically believe to be true.

If it is hard to calculate the amount of helium escaping from the ground into the air, imagine how hard it is to calculate the amount of helium escaping from the upper atmosphere into space. Some scientists calculate that the amount of helium escaping from the atmosphere into space is approximately equal to the amount of helium escaping from the ground into the atmosphere. Other scientists say very little helium escapes from the atmosphere. Who do you believe? You can’t do the measurements and make the calculations yourself.

If it were scientific, all scientists would agree. All scientists agree on the amount of heat produced by the combustion of 1 ounce of alcohol, but they don’t all agree on the rate that helium escapes from the atmosphere. The chemical energy stored in alcohol can be determined experimentally, so it can be known scientifically. But the rate that helium escapes from the atmosphere depends upon assumptions about unknown things, such as average diffusion rates, the temperature profile of the “standard atmosphere,” etc. It can’t be proved one way or the other experimentally.

Which scientists you believe depends upon your respect for the intelligence of the scientists involved. You will usually agree with the scientist who supports your prejudice—unless you can be convinced that the other scientist has a more persuasive argument. It all comes down to convincing rhetoric, so therefore we are in the realm of philosophy, not science.

The Sun

Consider what we know (or, what we think we know) about our own Sun. We can figure out the total mass of the Sun from the orbital motion of the planets. Since we know orbital distances and velocities, we can solve equations of motions that tell us the mass of the Sun and the planets. That’s good, solid science.

We know that the Sun gives off a tremendous amount of energy. We are fairly certain that the energy is produced by the fusion of hydrogen to form helium. Knowing how much energy the Sun is sending in our direction, we can calculate the total energy the Sun is radiating in all directions (assuming that it radiates the same amount in all directions, which is probably true). E = mc2 tells us how much mass has to be converted to energy to produce that much radiant energy. We are on pretty solid scientific ground here because the assumption that hydrogen fusion is the source of the energy is plausible. Still, we have to remember that we have made an assumption, and that all bets are off if this assumption is wrong. Centuries ago scientists assumed the Sun was made of burning coal, and it seemed plausible to them, too.

As the Sun burns, it loses mass, so one would naturally assume that it gets smaller every year. That means that it would have been larger in the past. How big would the Sun have been 4 billion years ago?

There are people who claim to have measured the diameter of the Sun and calculated its size in the past. According to an Impact article published by the Institute For Creation Research, the Sun is shrinking at a rate of 5 feet per hour (0.1% per century), based on a report published in 1979. Their conclusion is,

The sun, 20 million years ago, would have been so large that it would have engulfed the earth. 1

Did they measure it accurately? Can you personally check their measurements?

Consider the difficulty of measuring the diameter of the Sun that accurately. Imagine that you used a pin-hole camera to project an image of the Sun on a piece of paper, and you adjusted the focal length such that the image of the Sun was 10 inches in diameter. If it is shrinking 0.1% per century, it would shrink 0.01% in 10 years. So, if you repeated the experiment again after 10 years, the image of the Sun would be 9.9999 inches. You could not achieve that accuracy with a home-made pin-hole camera, but an astronomer with an expensive telescope might be able to do it. You would have to take the word of an astronomer. Other astronomers have made more recent measurements of the Sun’s diameter and have found minor fluctuations in size, but no measurable long-term shrinkage. Which astronomer do you believe?

A Different Approach

So, let’s attack the problem a different way. According to NASA, the Sun is converting 4,300 million kilograms of mass to energy every second. 2 That sounds like a lot—and it is! That is equivalent to about 3 million Toyota Camrys per second. NASA also says the present mass of the Sun is 1.989100 x 1030 kilograms. A billion years from now, the Sun will have lost 0.0001357 x 1030 kilograms of mass, which is only 0.0068% of its current mass, if it keeps burning at the present rate.

So, 4.6 billion years ago, when the Sun was supposed to have formed, it would have had only 0.03% more mass than it has now. Such a small change in mass would have resulted in a correspondingly small change in diameter. At its current rate, it will take the Sun 14,658 billion years to burn out. It would seem that the Sun has always been the same size, no matter how old you think the solar system is.

Another Question

But this raises another question. Evolutionists believe that the Sun was formed from a collapsing hydrogen gas cloud. Gravity (or some other unknown force) caused hydrogen atoms to attract and stick to each other. One has to cool hydrogen gas down to -253 oC (-423 oF) at 1 atmosphere of pressure to get it to liquefy, 3 so it is hard to imagine why a cloud of hydrogen gas, under no pressure, would condense spontaneously, especially at the incredibly high temperatures that were supposedly present immediately after the Big Bang. But suppose it did. Suppose that a big hydrogen gas cloud collapsed at the same rate at which the Sun is now burning—4,300 million kilograms every second. It would have taken 14,658 billion years for the Sun to form. But the universe is supposed to be only 14 billion years old. That means the hydrogen gas cloud would have had to have collapsed 1,000 times faster than the Sun is burning now to attain its present mass. It is mind boggling to think 3 billion Toyotas worth of hydrogen atoms were crashing into the Sun every second for 14 billion years to create the Sun. Remember, that’s assuming the Sun started forming immediately after the Big Bang. If it took a while before the Sun started to form (as most evolutionists believe), the rate of collapse would have to be even faster. But “scientists say” that the Sun formed from the collapse of a hydrogen gas cloud, and we are supposed to accept that without question.

Philosophy is Speculation

When we talk about the formation of the Sun, we aren’t really in the realm of science any more. We are speculating whether or not it is possible for hydrogen gas to condense that rapidly. That’s philosophy—not science.

Evolutionists also say the planets were formed by accumulation of cosmic dust and gas. Why didn’t that dust and gas get sucked into the Sun before forming planets? Why are different planets made of different materials? Astronomers attempt to answer those questions, but their answers are nothing more than philosophy mixed with intimidating scientific jargon. The “truth” about the universe changes depending upon which astronomer gives the most convincing argument.

Please don’t misunderstand. Some of the things that astronomers say really are scientific facts. Planetary motion, for example, is real science. Astronomy can be used to compute a course for a spacecraft so that in six months it will be where Mars will be in six months. For thousands of years astronomy served admirably by telling civilizations when to plant crops. When astronomers predict eclipses, or the trajectory of a comet, they are doing real science. But not everything said by astronomers is fact. When they are spinning yarns about how the solar system formed, they are philosophizing.

Astronomical theories can be compared to brick buildings. The bricks are facts, but they are held together by the mortar of speculation. The shape of the building depends more upon the arrangement of the bricks and how much mortar is used to hold them there, than it depends upon the shape of an individual brick.

The Latest Theory

One of the reasons why we don’t deal with astronomy too much in this newsletter is that it is too hard to keep up with the latest theory. We don’t know if, by the time you read this, astronomers will believe that the universe is expanding, shrinking, oscillating, or staying the same. If measurements don’t match the theory, then astronomers speculate about “dark matter” or “dark energy,” which can’t be seen but must exist because the theory won’t work otherwise. It is a better-than-even-money-bet that next month’s cover of Scientific American or Discover will contain the title of an article about something that astronomers used to believe, but don’t believe any more.

Astronomy certainly is based in facts. But there are lots of gaps that have to be filled in with the mortar of “dark matter” and “dark energy,” (things that can’t be observed but must be there for the theory to be true). There is an awful lot of speculation in astronomy.

Arguments about the age of the Earth, the age of the solar system, and the age of the universe, are necessarily philosophical, not scientific. Yes, they are based on some scientific facts, but they also contain lots of assumptions and “gut feelings.”

Our Gut Feeling

Returning to our own example, the current mass of the Sun is a known fact, but there is no scientific way to determine how rapidly that much hydrogen gas could collapse under unknown conditions. Looking at the numbers, it does not seem even remotely reasonable to us that so much hydrogen gas could collapse that quickly in just 14 billion years. But that’s just what we think, based on personal experience. We can’t scientifically prove it, and nobody can scientifically disprove it.

If that much hydrogen gas can’t collapse that quickly, it logically implies one of two things. Either the universe is thousands of times older than the current astronomical theory says, or the Sun wasn’t created by a natural process. But both of these conclusions are outside the realm of science and properly termed “philosophical.” There is no way to prove or disprove either conclusion. Furthermore, there might be a third possibility we have failed to even consider.

There’s nothing wrong with philosophy. There certainly is value in thinking about things that can’t be proved one way or the other. But, it is dangerous to confuse philosophy with science because there may be a difference between what we think is true and what really is true.

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Footnotes:

1 http://icr.org/article/165/
2 http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/factsheet/sunfact.html
3 http://www-safety.deas.harvard.edu/services/hydrogen.html