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Science in Christian Perspective. Radiometric Dating. A Christian Perspective. Roger C. Wiens has a PhD in Physics, with a minor in Geology. His PhD thesis was on isotope ratios in meteorites, including surface exposure dating. Radiometric dating--the process of determining the age of rocks from the decay of their radioactive elements--has been in widespread use for over half a century. There are over forty such techniques, each using a different radioactive element or a different way of measuring them. It has become increasingly clear that these radiometric dating techniques agree with each other and as a whole, present a coherent picture in which the Earth was created a very long time ago.
Further evidence comes from the complete agreement between radiometric dates and other dating methods such as counting tree rings or glacier ice core layers. Many Christians have been led to distrust radiometric dating and are completely unaware of the great of laboratory measurements that have shown these methods to be consistent.
Many are also unaware that Bible-believing Christians are among those actively involved in radiometric dating. This paper describes in relatively simple terms how a of the dating techniques work, how accurately the half-lives of the radioactive elements and the rock dates themselves are known, and how dates are checked with one another. In the process the paper refutes a of misconceptions prevalent among Christians today. This paper is available on the web via the American Scientific Affiliation and related sites to promote greater understanding and wisdom on this issue, particularly within the Christian community.
Doubters Still Try Apparent Age? Arguments over the age of the Earth have sometimes been divisive for people who regard the Bible as God's word. Even though the Earth's age is never mentioned in the Bible, it is an issue because those who take a strictly literal view of the early chapters of Genesis can calculate an approximate date for the creation by adding up the life-spans of the people mentioned in the genealogies. Assuming a strictly literal interpretation of the week of creation, even if some of the generations were left out of the genealogies, the Earth would be less than ten thousand years old.
Radiometric dating techniques indicate that the Earth is thousands of times older than that--approximately four and a half billion years old. Many Christians accept this and interpret the Genesis in less scientifically literal ways. However, some Christians suggest that the geologic dating techniques are unreliable, that they are wrongly interpreted, or that they are confusing at best. Unfortunately, much of the literature available to Christians has been either inaccurate or difficult to understand, so that confusion over dating techniques continues. The next few s cover a broad overview of radiometric dating techniques, show a few examples, and discuss the degree to which the various dating systems agree with each other.
The goal is to promote greater understanding on this issue, particularly for the Christian community. Many people have been led to be skeptical of dating without knowing much about it. For example, most people don't realize that carbon dating is only rarely used on rocks. God has called us to be "wise as serpents" Matt. In spite of this, differences still occur within the church.
A disagreement over the age of the Earth is relatively minor in the whole scope of Christianity; it is more important to agree on the Rock of Ages than on the age of rocks. But because God has also called us to wisdom, this issue is worthy of study. Rocks are made up of many individual crystals, and each crystal is usually made up of at least several different chemical elements such as iron, magnesium, silicon, etc.
Most of the elements in nature are stable and do not change. However, some elements are not completely stable in their natural state. Some of the atoms eventually change from one element to another by a process called radioactive decay. If there are a lot of atoms of the original element, called the parent element, the atoms decay to another element, called the daughter element, at a predictable rate.
The passage of time can be charted by the reduction in the of parent atoms, and the increase in the of daughter atoms. Radiometric dating can be compared to an hourglass. When the glass is turned over, sand runs from the top to the bottom. Radioactive atoms are like individual grains of sand--radioactive decays are like the falling of grains from the top to the bottom of the glass.
You cannot predict exactly when any one particular grain will get to the bottom, but you can predict from one time to the next how long the whole pile of sand takes to fall. Once all of the sand has fallen out of the top, the hourglass will no longer keep time unless it is turned over again.
Similarly, when all the atoms of the radioactive element are gone, the rock will no longer keep time unless it receives a new batch of radioactive atoms. Figure 1. The rate of loss of sand from from the top of an hourglass compared to exponential type of decay of radioactive elements. Most processes that we are familiar with are like sand in an hourglass. In exponential decay the amount of material decreases by half during each half-life. After two half-lives one-fourth remains, after three half-lives, one-eighth, etc.
As shown in the bottom panel, the daughter element or isotope amount increases rapidly at first and more slowly with each succeeding half life. Unlike the hourglass, where the amount of sand falling is constant right up until the end, the of decays from a fixed of radioactive atoms decreases as there are fewer atoms left to decay see Figure 1. If it takes a certain length of time for half of the atoms to decay, it will take the same amount of time for half of the remaining atoms, or a fourth of the original total, to decay.
In the next interval, with only a fourth remaining, only one eighth of the original total will decay. By the time ten of these intervals, or half-lives, has passed, less than one thousandth of the original of radioactive atoms is left. The equation for the fraction of parent atoms left is very simple. The type of equation is exponential, and is related to equations describing other well-known phenomena such as population growth.
No deviations have yet been found from this equation for radioactive decay. Also unlike the hourglass, there is no way to change the rate at which radioactive atoms decay in rocks. If you shake the hourglass, twirl it, or put it in a rapidly accelerating vehicle, the time it takes the sand to fall will change. But the radioactive atoms used in dating techniques have been subjected to heat, cold, pressure, vacuum, acceleration, and strong chemical reactions to the extent that would be experienced by rocks or magma in the mantle, crust, or surface of the Earth or other planets without any ificant change in their decay rate.
In only a couple of special cases have any decay rates been observed to vary, and none of these special cases apply to the dating of rocks as discussed here. These exceptions are discussed later. An hourglass will tell time correctly only if it is completely sealed.
If it has a hole allowing the sand grains to escape out the side instead of going through the neck, it will give the wrong time interval. Similarly, a rock that is to be dated must be sealed against loss or addition of either the radioactive daughter or parent.
If it has lost some of the daughter element, it will give an inaccurately young age. As will be discussed later, most dating techniques have very good ways of telling if such a loss has occurred, in which case the date is thrown out and so is the rock! An hourglass measures how much time has passed since it was turned over.
Actually it tells when a specific amount of time, e. Radiometric dating of rocks also tells how much time has passed since some event occurred. For igneous rocks the event is usually its cooling and hardening from magma or lava. For some other materials, the event is the end of a metamorphic heating event in which the rock gets baked underground at generally over a thousand degrees Fahrenheitthe uncovering of a surface by the scraping action of a glacier, the chipping of a meteorite off of an asteroid, or the length of time a plant or animal has been dead.
There are now well over forty different radiometric dating techniques, each based on a different radioactive isotope. The term isotope subdivides elements into groups of atoms that have the same atomic weight. For example carbon has isotopes of weight 12, 13, and 14 times the mass of a nucleon, referred to as carbon, carbon, or carbon abbreviated as 12 C, 13 C, 14 C.
It is only the carbon isotope that is radioactive. This will be discussed further in a later section. A partial list of the parent and daughter isotopes and the decay half-lives is given in Table I. Notice the large range in the half-lives. Isotopes with long half-lives decay very slowly, and so are useful for dating. Table 1. Some Naturally Occurring Radioactive Isotopes and their half-lives. Parent Product. Daughter Half-Life. Years Samarium Neodymium billion Rubidium Strontium Isotopes with shorter half-lives cannot date very ancient events because all of the atoms of the parent isotope would have already decayed away, like an hourglass left sitting with all the sand at the bottom.
Isotopes with relatively short half-lives are useful for dating correspondingly shorter intervals, and can usually do so with greater accuracy, just as you would use a stopwatch rather than a grandfather clock to time a meter dash. On the other hand, you would use a calendar, not a clock, to record time intervals of several weeks or more. The half-lives have all been measured directly either by using a radiation detector to count the of atoms decaying in a given amount of time from a known amount of the parent material, or by measuring the ratio of daughter to parent atoms in a sample that originally consisted completely of parent atoms.
Work on radiometric dating first started shortly after the turn of the 20th century, but progress was relatively slow before the late. However, by now we have had over fifty years to measure and re-measure the half-lives for many of the dating techniques. Very precise counting of the decay events or the daughter atoms can be done, so while the of, say, rhenium atoms decaying in 50 years is a very small fraction of the total, the resulting osmium atoms can be very precisely counted.
For example, recall that only one gram of material contains over 10 21 1 with 21 zeros behind atoms. Even if only one trillionth of the atoms decay in one year, this is still millions of decays, each of which can be counted by a radiation detector! The uncertainties on the half-lives given in the table are all very small. There is no evidence of any of the half-lives changing over time. In fact, as discussed below, they have been observed to not change at all over hundreds of thousands of years.
Examples of Dating Methods for Igneous Rocks. Now let's look at how the actual dating methods work. Igneous rocks are good candidates for dating. Recall that for igneous rocks the event being dated is when the rock was formed from magma or lava. When the molten material cools and hardens, the atoms are no longer free to move about. Daughter atoms that result from radioactive decays occurring after the rock cools are frozen in the place where they were made within the rock.
These atoms are like the sand grains accumulating in the bottom of the hourglass. Determining the age of a rock is a two-step process. First one needs to measure the of daughter atoms and the of remaining parent atoms and calculate the ratio between them.
Then the half-life is used to calculate the time it took to produce that ratio of parent atoms to daughter atoms. However, there is one complication.
One cannot always assume that there were no daughter atoms to begin with. It turns out that there are some cases where one can make that assumption quite reliably. But in most cases the initial amount of the daughter product must be accurately determined. Most of the time one can use the different amounts of parent and daughter present in different minerals within the rock to tell how much daughter was originally present.
Each dating mechanism deals with this problem in its own way. Some types of dating work better in some rocks; others are better in other rocks, depending on the rock composition and its age. Let's examine some of the different dating mechanisms now. Potassium is an abundant element in the Earth's crust. One isotope, potassium, is radioactive and decays to two different daughter products, calcium and argon, by two different decay methods. This is not a problem because the production ratio of these two daughter products is precisely known, and is always constant:Radiometric dating christian perspective
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