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Helium evidence for a young world continues to confound critics

Published: 29 November 2008 (GMT+10)

This week we feature a response by CMI scientist-speaker Russ Humphreys to six years of criticism of one part of the Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth (RATE) creationist research initiative (1997–2005):

Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory. Helium critics
Figure 1. Drilling rig at Fenton Hill, New Mexico, USA.

My part of the RATE initiative, in collaboration with fellow RATE researchers Steve Austin, John Baumgardner, and Andrew Snelling, was to explain the remarkable retention of helium observed in radioactive crystals in granitic rocks. I showed that the retention is evidence that the usual radioactivity-based billion-year ages for such rocks are grossly wrong, and that the rocks are only 6000 (± 2000) years old. Even before I finished the project, critics began sniping at it. The critics are usually atheists or professing Christians with various old-earth views. They are very disturbed about the project’s strong support of the young biblical age of the earth. Table 1 lists their criticisms and my responses. In September, 2008, another such criticism appeared on a ‘progressive creation’ website, and I’ll discuss it below.

The criticisms show the attackers think the research is good enough to be a threat to them. But it has been only recently that I’ve seen God’s purpose in the attacks. He apparently uses the criticisms (and creationist answers) to help believers evaluate our research, just as an assayer uses acid (and a bright light) to show there is gold in a sample.

None of the critics listed below have published their denunciations in peer-reviewed scientific publications. Instead they are ‘lone-ranger’ opinions in un-reviewed venues such as Internet sites and seminars. This contrasts starkly with the RATE helium project. It was a multi-author effort, and it had more than seventeen reviewers and editors as it appeared in five technical publications, one of which is non-creationist.1–5

The evidence the critics want to hide

Photo by R. V. Gentry. Helium critics
Figure 2. Microscopic zircons used in this research.

Here’s what the nay-sayers are trying to obscure. (For details, see the technical resources referenced above, or several non-technical resources.6,7) Decades ago, Robert Gentry analyzed tiny zircon (zirconium silicate) crystals recovered by drilling in hot Precambrian (over 545 million years old according to the geologic timescale) ‘basement’ rock in New Mexico.8 Figure 1 shows the drilling rig and site. Figure 2 shows some of the zircons Gentry analyzed, between 50 and 75 microns (millionths of a meter) long.

Enough of the uranium in the zircons had decayed to lead to give them a radioisotope (radioactive element) age of ‘1.5 billion’ years. But Gentry found that up to 58% of the helium that the nuclear decay would produce was still in the zircons. This was surprising because helium diffuses (leaks) rapidly out of most minerals.

Not knowing how fast helium leaks from zircon, I estimated what the leak rates would be when we measured them. In essence (of course the mathematics is more complicated), all I did to get the estimates was to divide the amount of helium lost from the crystal by the time (assumed by each of two models) during which it had been lost. That gives us the leak rates for each model. The ‘1.5 billion year’ model has rates over 100,000 times slower than the ‘6,000 year’ model, because the former has to retain the helium for a much longer time. Then in the year 2000, the RATE group published the estimates as numerical predictions for those two models.9

Helium critics
Figure 3. Model-predicted (red and magenta diamonds) and measured (blue dots) helium leak rates (‘Diffusivity’) of zircons. The data fit the 6,000-year prediction very well.

Figure 3 shows the predictions as red and magenta diamond symbols. The bottom axis shows the temperature (in °C) of each sample in situ, that is, while it was in the granitic rock in the earth. The vertical axis shows ‘diffusivity’, which is a measure of how fast helium leaks from a material. The vertical axis is tremendously compressed, representing a factor of one trillion increase in leakage rates from bottom to top. The black numbers under the diamonds are the percentages of helium retained in each sample.

The red and magenta vertical lines through the diamonds are the ‘two-sigma error bars’. They show the 95% confidence limits I estimated for the accuracy of the predictions.10

In 2001 we commissioned one of the world’s most respected experimenters in this field to measure the diffusivity of helium in the same-size zircons from the same borehole in the same rock formation. We used an existing mining company as an intermediary, and we asked the company to not tell the experimenter about us or our goals. The experimenter, being a uniformitarian (believer in long ages) and not having read our prediction, had no idea what results we were hoping for. It was a truly ‘blind’ experiment, and we were eagerly awaiting the data, which we received in 2003.

Figure 3 shows the experimental results as blue dots with blue ‘2-sigma error bars’ going vertically through them. If we repeated the experiments hundreds of times, we estimate the data points would remain within the caps on the error bars over 95% of the time.

To our great delight, the data fell right on the ‘6,000 year’ prediction! This alignment validates the young-age model even for readers who are not experts in this field, because the probability of such a lineup by accident is small. The data resoundingly reject the ‘1.5 billion year’ model. The experimenter, whose name is in one of our articles, stands by his data, even though as a uniformitarian he does not like our interpretation of them. (Even after five years, he has not offered an alternative interpretation.)

This sequence of events places the burden of disproof on the critics, because they must explain how, if there is no truth to our model, the data happened to fall right on our prediction, despite a low probability of doing so by accident. All the critics have avoided dealing with that issue.

List of critics and my responses

Here is a table summarizing all the criticisms (plus two friendly questions) of the RATE helium research I know of since 2002, along with my answers. See references for venues of criticisms and replies.

No. Date Critic (or commenter) Main Criticisms Main Replies
1 10/2002 Joe Meert11 Mistook ‘–196°C’12 for ‘closure temperature’ with wrong sign. It was not closure temperature, sign was correct, and Meert totally misunderstood its significance.13
2 9/2003 Hugh Ross14 Said, ‘Helium is slippery.’ Yes … ‘slippery’ is what we want, in order to date zircons by the rate with which helium slips out of them.15
3 12/2003 *****16 Alleged that interface phenomena are significant. Analysis of interface phenomena shows they are insignificant.17
4 1/2004 Keith Wanser18 Similar to above, but from a YEC. Same as above.
5 6/2004 Hugh Ross19 Asserted that helium came into the zircons from outside them. Minerals surrounding the zircons have far less helium and uranium than the zircons, showing the helium did not come from outside the zircons.20
6 12/2004 (George Drake)21 (Friendly) concern about possible differences of pressure between biotite and zircon Analysis of pressure differences shows they are insignificant.22
7 12/2004 (Robert Brown)23 (Friendly) concern about lead diffusion from zircons Lead diffusion rates, while interesting, are irrelevant to helium diffusion rates.24
8 3/2005 Kevin Henke25 Disputed about % retention, source of helium, and minor issues Effects of all of these issues turn out to be vastly smaller than the factor of 100,000 discrepancy observed.26
9 3/2005 Roger Wiens27 Alleged that accumulation over time of radiation defects in zircons is significant Effect turns out to be only a factor of two, within our error bars, and again vastly smaller than the factor of 100,000 discrepancy observed.28
10 11/2005 Kevin Henke29 Alleged that in situ hydrostatic pressure effect is significant. Zircons are so hard that pressure or vacuum doesn’t affect helium diffusion significantly.30
11 3/2008 Randy Isaac31 Claimed that a detailed history of site temperature is necessary to understand leak rates. We assumed lower temperatures than Los Alamos Ice Age heat flow models, thus giving uniformitarians their best possible case.32
12 9/2008 Gary Loechelt33 Claimed that during past eons, leak rates were much slower, and site was very much cooler. ‘Lower leak rate’ misunderstands experiments; ‘cooler site’ misunderstands published Los Alamos heat flow models.
Table 1. Criticisms and Responses

My referenced responses to items 8 and 10 cover most of the criticisms that have been made. Many people do not realize that I have answered item 10, dealing with pressure/vacuum effects.

Item 12 is the most recent criticism, and I will reply to it briefly here. In September 2008, Gary Loechelt, who has a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering, posted a two-part criticism on a ‘progressive creationist’ website, along with a technical article which apparently has been neither peer-reviewed nor published (though perhaps rejected by a journal).34 His main claims were:

(A) One or two percent of the helium in a zircon is not tightly bound in the crystal, but rather loosely attached in the crystal’s cracks and defects. This ‘loose’ helium can therefore diffuse out of the zircon very easily in a laboratory measurement.
(B) The loose helium, he claims, caused the laboratory measurements to make the zircons appear much more leaky than they actually are.

Loechelt is right in claim (A), but wrong in claim (B). He overlooked part of one of his own quotes, in which an expert pointed out that loose helium would only affect the initial steps of the laboratory measurement, because after the initial steps the loose helium would be gone. That is one reason diffusion experts recommend ignoring the initial steps. Our experimenter recommended that, and that is exactly what we did.35 Thus he felt free to tell us that the rates he measured were accurate depictions of the leakiness for the other 98% of the helium. Ironically, our expert is one of those that Loechelt cites in his section about this issue. Loechelt either completely misunderstood the experts, or he deliberately distorted their meaning.

If leak rates were really much lower than measured, the past temperature history of the zircons would become much more important. That’s because colder site temperatures would make Loechelt’s low leakages even lower, giving him a chance to retain the helium for billions of years. But even on temperatures, Loechelt shows a remarkable ability to misunderstand the experts. He fails to grasp the essence of the published Los Alamos heat flow models, which is that due to nearby volcanic activity in the past they imagine, temperatures in our borehole would have been higher than today for hundreds of millennia. Instead, Loechelt insists, temperatures were always lower. But even assuming (for the sake of argument) his lower temperatures, a few hundred thousand years of the laboratory leak rates would wipe out essentially all the helium from the zircons … in contrast to the high amounts observed. That is why, in addition to assuming a cooler site, Loechelt must deny the laboratory measurements and imagine much lower leak rates.

Loechelt also whacks away at some of my calculations. If he were correct, my calculations might have to be adjusted by a factor of two or so. But that would still be within the error bars of the models. Worse for him, it would still be far short of explaining the factor of 100,000 discrepancy between the uniformitarian model and experiments!

Help for non-experts in deciding

Don’t forget that there is an easy way you can understand who is correct in all the arguments. Just take another look at Figure 3. We published the ‘6,000 year’ model (red diamonds) in the year 2000. The experimenter, not knowing what answer we wanted, produced the blue data dots in the graph in 2003. The close fit of the model and the experiment is strong evidence that both are essentially correct, because the probability of an accidental fit is low. You don’t need to be an expert to understand that.

Another simple point is the number of critics and the long time they’ve been criticizing. Each one was unsatisfied enough with the previous criticisms (most are familiar enough with the others to borrow their arguments occasionally) to take the time to attack the helium data on their own.

As for me, the critics have increased my confidence. My feeling after working through each criticism has been, ‘Is that the best they can do? They must not have been able to find a real error of any importance.’ I hope that you also will become more confident in this strong evidence for the young world presented in Scripture, thus gaining more confidence in the Bible itself:

For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth … Exodus 20:11


  1. Humphreys, D.R., Accelerated nuclear decay: a viable hypothesis?; in: Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth: A Young-Earth Creationist Research Initiative, edited by Vardiman, L., Snelling, A.A. and Chaffin, E. F., Chapter 7, pp. 333–379, Institute for Creation Research and the Creation Research Society, El Cajon, CA, and St. Joseph, Missouri, 2000. Download 2.5 MB PDF of book for free from http://www.icr.org/i/pdf/research/rate-all.pdf. Return to text.
  2. Humphreys, D.R., Young helium diffusion age of zircons supports accelerated nuclear decay; in: Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth, Vol. II: Results of a Young-Earth Creationist Research Initiative, edited by Vardiman, L., Snelling, A.A. and Chaffin, E. F., Chapter 2, pp. 25–100, Institute for Creation Research and the Creation Research Society, El Cajon, CA, and Chino Valley, Arizona, 2005. Return to text.
  3. Humphreys, D.R., Austin, S.A., Baumgardner, J.R. and Snelling, A.A., Helium diffusion rates support accelerated nuclear decay; in: Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Creationism, edited by Ivey, R.L.Jr., Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, pp. 175–195, 2003. See http://www.icr.org/i/pdf/research/Helium_ICC_7-22-03.pdf Return to text.
  4. Humphreys, D.R., Austin, S. A., Baumgardner, J.R. and Snelling, A.A., Helium diffusion age of 6,000 years supports accelerated nuclear decay, Creation Research Society Quarterly, 41(1):1–16, 2004. See http://www.creationresearch.org/crsq/articles/41/41_1/
    . Return to text.
  5. Humphreys, D.R., Austin, S. A., Baumgardner, J.R. and Snelling, A.A., Recently measured helium diffusion rate for zircon suggests inconsistency with U-Pb age for Fenton Hill granodiorite, Eos, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union 84(46), Fall Meet. Suppl., Abstract V32C-1047, 2003. For more about the AGU presentations, see:
    . Return to text.
  6. DeYoung, D., Thousands … not Billions, Master Books, Green Forest, Arkansas, 2005. Return to text.
  7. RATE Premiere Conference, Two-disc DVD set, 2005. Available from Institute for Creation Research at http://www.icr.org/store/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=2663 . Return to text.
  8. Gentry, R.V., Glish, G.J. and McBay, E.H., Differential helium retention in zircons: implications for nuclear waste management, Geophysical Research Letters 9(10):1129–1130, 1982a. Return to text.
  9. Humphreys, D.R., Accelerated nuclear decay: a viable hypothesis?; in: Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth: A Young-Earth Creationist Research Initiative, edited by Vardiman, L., Snelling, A.A. and Chaffin, E. F., Chapter 7, pp. 333–379, Institute for Creation Research and the Creation Research Society, San Diego, CA, 2000. Return to text.
  10. Humphreys, ref. 2. Return to text.
  11. Meert, J., R.A T E.: more faulty research from the Institute for Creation Research, personal website, October 10, 2002. Revised version (February 6, 2003) at http://gondwanaresearch.com/rate.htm. Original 10/18/02 version no longer on Meert’s website, but ref. quotes the relevant part. Return to text.
  12. Humphreys, D.R., Nuclear decay: evidence for a young world, ICR Impact No. 352, October, 2002, at http://www.icr.org/index.php?module=articles&action=view&ID=302. Return to text.
  13. Humphreys, D.R., Humphreys’ reply to Meert, October 22, 2002. Quoted in full in, Sarfati, J., Russ Humphreys refutes Joe Meert’s false claims about helium diffusion, on the following page of the Creation Ministries International website: https://creation.com/article/2578/ . Return to text.
  14. Ross, H.N., Primetime: radiometric dating methods and the RATE study, Reasons to Believe radio broadcast, September 18, 2003. Other participants: Roger Wiens, Fazale Rana, Marge Harmon, Christa Bontrager. Audio recording available from following page of Reasons to Believe website: http://www.reasons.org/resources/multimedia/rtbradio/
    . Return to text.
  15. Vardiman, L. (and RATE committee), Ross criticizes RATE without doing his homework, news article on ICR website, October, 2003. No longer available on ICR website, but see Ross Criticizes RATE Without Doing His Homework for a near-final draft of the article done on October 2, 2003. Return to text.
  16. Anonymous, December, 2003, name and venue omitted to protect critic’s privacy. Return to text.
  17. Humphreys, D.R., Helium diffusion age of 6,000 years supports accelerated nuclear decay, Creation Research Society Quarterly 41(1):1–15, June 2004. See Appendix: Responding to a critic, pp. 12–15. Return to text.
  18. Wanser, K., Seminar at Creation ‘Supercamp’ Sydney January 2004,’ Creation Ministries International, Brisbane, Australia. Dr. Wanser was not claiming CMI endorsement for his views. No guest speaker at the camp was required to submit contents beforehand. Return to text.
  19. Ross, H., Intelligent Design Conference, Highlands, NC, June 24–26, 2004, in question period on afternoon of June 26. See account of conference by Dan Reynolds at www.members.aol.com/dwr51055/ID/highlands.htm. Return to text.
  20. Humphreys, D.R., Same question period as above, rebutting Ross’s comment and referring to ref.2 . Other than saying he hadn’t read the article, Ross had no response. More detailed response to same issue is in item 9 of my reply to Kevin Henke, ref. 26. Return to text.
  21. Drake, G.P., Helium diffusion in zircons, Creation Research Society Quarterly 41(3):256–257, December 2004. Return to text.
  22. Humphreys, D.R., Humphreys replies to Drake, Creation Research Society Quarterly 41(3):257–258, December 2004. Return to text.
  23. Brown, R.S., Lead and helium diffusion, Creation Research Society Quarterly 41(3):258–259, December 2004. Return to text.
  24. Humphreys, D.R., Humphreys replies to Brown, Creation Research Society Quarterly 41(3):259, December 2004. Return to text.
  25. Henke, K.R., Young-earth creationist helium diffusion ‘dates’, posted March 17, 2005 at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/helium/zircons.html. Henke subsequently has revised his article many times without archiving the first version. But you can see the March 17, 2005 copy archived here. Return to text.
  26. Humphreys, D.R., Helium evidence for a young world remains crystal-clear, posted in the True Origin archive, April 27, 2005, see http://www.trueorigin.org/helium01.asp#b2. Return to text.
  27. Wiens, R., Seminar at ‘Coming to Grips with Creation’ conference, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, March, 2005. Return to text.
  28. Humphreys, D.R., E-mail to above conference participants and Wiens, March 22, 2005. Return to text.
  29. Henke, K. R., Young-earth creationist helium diffusion ‘dates’, posted November 24, 2005 at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/helium/zircons.html . It was an extensive revision of Henke’s 3/17/05 article, but Henke has made yet more revisions since then. The November 24, 2005 version is archived here. Return to text.
  30. Humphreys, D.R., Helium evidence for a young world overcomes pressure, posted January 5, 2006 at http://www.trueorigin.org/helium02.asp. Return to text.
  31. Isaac, R., ‘Isaac Replies’, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 60(1):36–38, March 2008. See http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/origins/rate-pscf.pdf. Return to text.
  32. Humphreys, D.R., What the ASA doesn’t want you to know, Creation Matters 13(2):1,4, March/April 2008. Archived online (for Creation Research Society members only during the year 2008, afterwards in public domain) at www.creationresearch.org/creation_matters/2008.htm. Return to text.
  33. Loechelt, G., Helium diffusion in zircon: evidence supports an old earth, parts 1 and 2, posts on Reasons to Believe (Hugh Ross) website. Part 1 at http://www.reasons.org/tnrtb/2008/09/10/ . Part 2 at http://www.reasons.org/tnrtb/2008/09/17/helium-diffusion-in-zircon-evidence-supports-an-old-earth-part-2-of-2/. Unpublished technical paper at http://reasons.org/resources/tnrtb/
    . Return to text.
  34. Loechelt, ref. 33. Return to text.
  35. Humphreys, ref. 2, pp. 44–45. Note especially in Table 2 that we ignored the first nine steps, just as the diffusion expert told us. Return to text.

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