Thursday, April 14, 2005

Geology and the Age of the Universe

Sorry for continuing on the Slifkin issue, but I got an e-mail today from my best friend in elementary school whom I've seen maybe once in the past fifteen years, and that was over a decade ago. He contacted me because yesterday a mutual friend had to get in touch with me for work purposes and passed along my e-mail address. This best friend of mine was, for many years, the only strictly Shomer Shabbos Jew of my generation whom I knew. Anyway, what does he have to do with the age of the universe? After learning in Gush for a while, he entered a doctoral program for geology. As he put it, he is studying "geology/ geochemistry/ planetary science."

This is what he is currently doing: "Radioisotope studies of the ages of meteorites, and comparing the various meteorites. Recently I've been working on the decay constant of 87Rb."

So I asked him what he thinks about the theories about how the decay constants are actually speeding up over time, and what that implies for the age of the universe. Would any serious scientists take such a theory seriously? And even if not, is it impossible or just implausible because it is unprovable?

Here is what he replied, with a little editing:

The way I generally answer this question is to say that "all the scientific evidence indicates that the solar system is 4.566 billion years old". Now, one could argue that God created a world that APPEARS this way, but is really 5765 years old...

As for decay constants changing, there is SOME evidence that might suggest SLIGHT changes in decay constants over GEOLOGICAL time. Hence, there are a few fringe researchers (serious scientists, but on the fringe in the sense that this is not generally accepted) who might explain the discrepancy between Rb-Sr and U-Pb ages based on changing decay constants. But this doesn't help in our issue - it makes the earth 4.466 billion years old instead of 4.566 or something like that.

Your final question, "Is it impossible or just implausible because it is unprovable?" is in a sense the basic question of philosophy of science. Nothing really can be PROVED. We can't PROVE gravity - all we can do is observe that in every case EVER, the laws of gravity seem to apply, and we can PREDICT things based on it, and after enough observations and predictions which come true we consider it proved. So yes, it cannot be PROVED that those who argue for a young universe are wrong, but if you consider the isotopes, and the glaciers, and the astronomical observations, and the tree rings etc., you must conclude that all the scientific evidence indicates a very very very old world.
(No, I don't know what all those letters stand for)

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