Dr Jonathan Sarfati
Russ Humphreys refutes Joe Meert’s false claims about helium diffusion

Introduction by Jonathan Sarfati

CMI (and other reputable ministries, like ICR) produces and distributes a wide range of materials on different topics and different levels of difficulty, to cater for the wide range of readers. But they are all aimed at defending the Bible right from the beginning and refuting critics. Naturally many of them raise the ire of biblioskeptics—the small minority, that is, who actually bother to find out what we say.

Some of the literature we stock is very technical, at the cutting edge of research. However, this carries the occupational hazard, because of its highly technical nature, that some critics are more likely to try to bamboozle people with the criticisms. Therefore it is helpful for highly qualified creationists to refute anti-creationists, to give creationist laypeople some ammunition, and realise that anti-creationists should not be feared.

The definitive technical creationist resource on modern radiometric dating
Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth

Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth
Larry Vardiman, Andrew A. Snelling, Eugene F. Chaffin

The age of the earth stands out as one of the most important issues among Christians today. The RATE group, consisting of six young-earth creationist geologists, geochemists, and physicists, is cooperating to research the issue of Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth. They have dared to ask the tough questions and are searching for an alternative explanation for the billions of years found in rocks.


One of the most technical books we stock is Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth (R.A.T.E.; see graphic, right), where creationist Ph.D. geologists and physicists provide plausible solutions to the evolutionists‘ favourite ‘long age’ argument, radiometric dating. So not surprisingly it has been the target of some anti-creationists who fancy themselves as being able to understand it. But as will be shown, far from demonstrating a mistake, the anti-creationist is the one who’s mistaken!

But before getting on to the specifics, for the benefit of readers new to the subject and to remind experienced readers, it’s worth covering some concepts related to the age of the Earth.

Determining the age of something

Biblical creationists believe that the best way to establish the Earth’s age is the testimony of the Eye-witness account in Genesis. In a law court, a reliable eyewitness that a suspect was absent from a crime scene overrules any circumstantial evidence, and there is no eyewitness more reliable than the all-knowing Creator. Creationists have also pointed out that ‘scientific’ methods are limited in dealing with the past, because of many assumptions. Therefore it would be folly to use any of this circumstantial evidence to overrule the plain meaning of the Bible. Sadly, many Christians do just that, i.e. the progressive creationists and theistic evolutionists.

Fighting the enemy with his own weapons

However, at Q&A: Young Earth Evidence, we have published a number of articles about scientific evidence. The point of these articles is to overcome the enemy belief system (cf. 2 Cor. 10:4–5) by turning its own axioms against it. This is a form of argument well-known to logicians called the reductio ad absurdum, i.e. showing that a premise is false by demonstrating that it implies an absurd conclusion. It is a technique that Christians can use to great effect, and Jesus Himself used this and many other types of logical arguments. Many statements by anti-Christians might appear reasonable on the surface, but when each of these statements is turned on itself, it refutes itself, e.g.:

  • ‘There is no truth’—this would mean that this sentence itself is not true.
  • ‘We can never know anything for certain’—so how could we know that for certain?
  • ‘A statement is only meaningful if it is either a necessary truth of logic or can be tested empirically’ (the once popular verification criterion for meaning of the ‘Logical Positivists’)—this statement itself is neither a necessary truth of logic nor can it be tested empirically, so it is meaningless by its own criteria.
  • ‘There are no moral absolutes, so we ought to be tolerant of other people’s morals’—but ‘ought’ implies a moral absolute that toleration is good.

Evolutionists rely on a principle sometimes called uniformitarianism: ‘the present is the key to the past’. This is precisely the characteristic of the ‘scoffers’ prophesied in 2 Peter 3: ‘all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.’ Peter reveals the huge flaw of the uniformitarian scoffers: they are ‘willingly ignorant’ of special creation by God and a cataclysmic globe-covering (and fossil-forming) Flood.

What the articles at Q&A: Young Earth Evidence show is that the evolutionists’ own axiom of uniformitarianism leads to conclusions contrary to their billions-of-years beliefs. If they wish to deny the conclusion of these articles, they must abandon their own axiom to do so. This is the whole point.

Three main points

  • Atheists have no basis for believing in the uniformity of nature that makes science possible, while Christians have a basis in the Creator God of the Bible.
  • Atheists certainly have no basis for believing in a rigid uniformity in the past, which doesn’t even have the merit of being amenable to repeatable tests.
  • Since they have this belief, it is legitimate for Christians to show that it leads to conclusions that refute their long-age beliefs.

Dr Humphreys’ argument about helium

Helium and the age of the Earth

Helium buildup is one such argument creationists have long used (see Blowing Old-Earth Belief Away—Helium gives evidence that the earth is young). For example, assuming that helium from radioactivity has had enough time to escape the earth’s crust into the atmosphere , taking account of how fast it’s leaving, and the amount in the atmosphere are all typical uniformitarian ‘dating’ procedures. But even granting assumptions as generous to the evolutionists as possible, there is far too little helium to be consistent with an age of billions of years. Rather, the amount is consistent with any age under 2 million years.

Less well known is the point that helium is produced by radioactive decay and is retained in the rocks, for example in mineral crystals called zircons. But helium is a very small and almost totally unreactive atom, and is known to diffuse rapidly through many minerals. Yet so much is found to be retained that there seems to have been too little time for it to escape. Until recently, however, there were no clear helium diffusion data for zircons, so we could not confirm our impression.

Evidence of accelerated nuclear decay

More recently, a RATE project led by Dr Russell Humphreys, a physicist who worked at Sandia National Laboratories for many years and now works for ICR, has shown several things about some zircons (see summary paper Nuclear decay: evidence for a young world):

  • There must have been 1.5 billion years worth of decay—at current decay rates
  • Large amounts, up to 58%, of the helium are still there
  • yet, as the new RATE experiments (confirmed by new published data from other laboratories) show, helium diffuses so rapidly out of zircon that it should have all but disappeared after about 100,000 years. The large amounts observed are consistent with only 4,000 to 14,000 years of diffusion.

Therefore the decay that produced the helium must have occurred within that time frame. But then how could so much helium have been produced and accumulated in so little time? The best answer seems to be an episode of accelerated nuclear decay, probably during Creation Week or the Flood year, or both.

Of course, if nuclear decay had been accelerated in the past, that kills one key assumption of radiometric dating, i.e. that the decay rate has been constant. This is far from the only evidence for accelerated nuclear decay, as the RATE book and other new data show.

  • Evidence of much decay of uranium-238 and its daughter elements to produce mature multi-ringed radiohalos in Phanerozoic rocks, although new carbon-14 evidence shows those rocks formed thousands, not millions of years ago (see the articles under What is radiocarbon dating? Is it accurate?) This is consistent with a rapid decay episode during the Genesis Flood.
  • High correlation of heat flow at Earth’s surface with concentration of radioactive isotopes, consistent with a pulse of accelerated decay during the Flood year to produce heat that hasn’t had time to dissipate.

There are theoretical means of producing accelerated decay, e.g. a small change in fundamental constants or the shape of the nuclear potential well can have a large effect on the decay rate (but little effect on radiohalo diameter).

Also, a billionfold increase has been observed in the laboratory. This was β-decay, where the nucleus emits an electron. The huge increase resulted when the nucleus was completely exposed by stripping the atom of all of its electrons.

Meert’s attack

Dr Joseph G. (‘Joe’) Meert, is a vocal anti-creationist active on the Internet, who certainly used to describe himself as an atheist, as most evolutionary propagandists are (see A Who’s Who of Evolutionists; Ed. note: he informed us, ‘while I may have described myself as an atheist in the past, that is no longer an accurate description’, and ‘You can put me down as “agnostic” which I believe to be an ultimately impossible position to maintain’ although for all practical purposes there is hardly any difference).

He is typical of anti-creationist academics who venture outside their own field (he is an assistant professor in the geology department of the University of Florida in Gainsville, specializing in paleomagnetism) and use an argument from authority (see also The Indoctrinator and More nonsense from Professor Plimer). For example, on the Amazon book reviews he criticized Lee Spetner’s book Not By Chance, but showed that he was unable (or unwilling) to grasp the simple point that goo-to-you evolution requires changes that increase information, not just survivability.

And like many anti-creationists known to be vociferous atheists (even if he now says he has backtracked from overt atheism), he is not above pretending to care about how creation harms Christianity and misrepresents the Bible, e.g. on the Amazon reviews of The Answers Book. Dr Meert has even reviewed Dr Humphreys’ own book Starlight and Time. But Meert just showed that he hasn’t the slightest grasp of the cosmological principles involved, since he didn’t even attempt to deal with the substance. Instead he resorted to inflammatory attacks, and once again hid his anti-Christian bigotry by his pretence that there is nothing apologetically wrong with an old Earth. [Ed. note: he later tried to assure us that he is not anti-Christian. But we still fail to see how this could be consistent with someone who spends so much time and energy attacking so much that Jesus taught. For example, his explicit statement ‘Scripture cannot be broken’ (John 10:35) ; and citation of Genesis as straightforward history, including belief that Adam and Eve were there ‘from the beginning of creation’ not billions of years afterwards Mark 10:6, and that the Flood and Ark actually happened Luke 17:26–27. See also a refutation of the claim that Jesus deliberately accommodated Himself to the mistaken views of His audience].

In this case, again like many anti-creationists, he seriously underestimates the opposition. This gets him into trouble when faced by a creationist who is far more knowledgeable about the specific area. [Ed. note: In a subsequent email, he inadvertently provided even more evidence for this common anti-creationist tendency, by venturing even further from his field into the area of Biblical scholarship. E.g. he tried village-atheist-style arguments about the supposed uncertainty about the Canon (answered on in articles at Q&A Bible) and supposed contradictions in the Bible about the conditions of salvation, making us wonder if he picked them up from a pathetic anti-Christian book refuted here].

From Joseph Meert’s website (10/10/02 update):

The RATE Group now contends that they have ‘proof’ that the Earth must be <14,000 years old since helium retention in zircons happens easily about –190 C [sic] (http://www.icr.org/pubs/imp/imp-352.htm). Unfortunately, this is an excellent example of poor scholarship by the ICR Group. The cited paper by Reiners (2002 Tectonophysics) actually cites diffusion temperatures [sic] for zircons on the order of +190 C!! Seems a little transcription error has resulted in ICR’s triumphant claims. The real data, as usual, show otherwise. (http://gondwanaresearch.com/rate.htm)

Humphreys’ reply to Meert (10/22/02):

Dear Professor Meert:

Thank you for your 10/18/02 feedback to ICR about my Impact No. 352, “Nuclear Decay: Evidence for a Young World,” alleging that I made an embarrassing mistake. Thank you also for your similar website comment (above) about it. I’m thanking you because I don’t want even an anti-creationist to be laboring under such severe misconceptions about our RATE work, and I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight. You have made three profound errors, assuming:

  1. That my “196°C below zero” is a closure temperature,
  2. That closure temperatures are relevant to this situation, and
  3. That creationist scientists who researched this subject for years are blind enough to miss something you thought you could spot immediately after reading a short layman’s summary of the work.

Here’s more about each item:

  1. Different temperatures. The +190°C cited by Reiners et al. is the closure temperature (your phrase “diffusion temperature” is imprecise) of the Nevada zircons they studied.
  2. [For the benefit of others reading this, closure temperature (for this case) is the point at which a cooling zircon stops losing helium (by diffusion) as fast as nuclear decay within the zircon is making it. Below I’ve preprinted an excerpt from our technical article describing the concept more thoroughly.]

    But the –196°C I mentioned in the Impact article is what I will call here the retention temperature. That is the temperature at which the Jemez zircons would have small enough diffusion rates to retain the observed large amounts of helium for 1.5 billion years. That’s essentially what I said in the article:

    ‘For most of that alleged time [1.5 billion years], the zircons would have to have been as cold as liquid nitrogen (196°C below zero) to retain the observed amount of helium.’

    The problem for uniformitarians is that the Jemez zircons were hot, between +100°C and +300°C. Those temperatures are much hotter than the “retention temperature” I defined above. Because diffusion rates increase with temperature (as I wrote), the diffusion rates of these hot zircons were so high they could not have retained large amounts of helium for the alleged 1.5 billion years.

    Thus the +190°C of Reiners had nothing to do with the –196°C of my article. One hint of that is that my reference to Reiners occurred several sentences ahead of the temperature you question. Also, notice that you incorrectly quoted my “196” as “190.” The difference should have been a clue that my number did not come from Reiner’s paper at all.

    Ref. 8 of our article (the RATE book) makes clear the main ideas behind the project. Have you studied that book? Probably not, because it would have prevented you from misunderstanding this point.

  3. Closure temperature is irrelevant. You misunderstood my statement because you misunderstood closure temperature. You thought that zircons below that temperature would remain a closed system. Wrong! See the preprinted section below to understand why. Even if the Jemez zircons had gone below their closure temperature, according to the uniformitarian scenario they would have re-opened within a few dozen years to a few thousand years after closure. After re-opening, they would again be an open system, again losing helium as fast as nuclear decay generated it for most of the alleged 1.5 billion years. Today the zircons would have retained less than 0.0002% of the helium, instead of the (up to) 58% observed.
  4. Who’s blind here? Every educated person (even a creationist) knows the earth’s interior is hot. Even a slight glance at the Reiners article, or at other thermochronometry literature, would show that geological closure temperatures are positive. Yet you assumed I had ignored such basics, misused Reiner’s temperature, and got its sign and magnitude wrong. Moreover, you assumed that none of my colleagues, including two geologists and one geophysicist, would catch such an obvious error. This incredible level of ignorance you assign to us is entirely the product of your own imagination. It has led to your blunders above.

From my own experience as a former atheist and evolutionist, I think I know how you could imagine us that way. An article of faith among anti-creationists is that creationists are so blinded by their religious views that they can’t do science at all. For you to consider any other possibility would open up major fissures in your worldview. When you encounter something you don’t understand in our writings, or that differs from what mainstream academic authority has told you, your automatic reaction is to assume that the creationists must be wrong. It appears you did not ask yourself whether it could be you who might be doing the misunderstanding.

This may be the reason you have criticized the RATE project without reading its technical book. The book answers not only your helium misunderstandings, but it also addresses all of the problems you raise on your website, such as radioactivity heating. Perhaps you felt that the effort to study nearly 700 highly technical pages would not be justified. What could a creationist teach you? Or perhaps in the deep recesses of your heart, you decided not to expose yourself to evidence that creationists can do good scientific work, or that your worldview might not be correct.

The irony—especially evident to us who have changed worldviews—is that faith in naturalistic uniformity, and in the infallibility of academic authority, has blinded you to the evidence, and to the possibility that creationists can do good science. In reality, your erroneous view of creation and creationists is a caricature, a straw man standing between you and a correct view of the world and God. This is one method the opponent of God uses to help people blind themselves, as the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:3,4:

And even if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

Preprint of section 10 of technical paper mentioned in Ref. 10 of ICR Impact article:


Some uniformitarians try to use the geoscience concept of closure temperature to claim that zircons below that temperature are permanently closed systems, losing no significant helium by diffusion. They fail to understand that even well below that temperature, zircons can re-open and lose large amounts of helium. Here we explain closure temperature and reopening, and show that in the uniformitarian scenario, the Jemez Granodiorite zircons would reopen early in their history.

Consider a hot zircon cooling down in newly formed granite. If the cooling rate is constant, then the seminal article by Martin Dodson [19] on closure temperature shows that the diffusion coefficient D (of helium moving out of the zircon) decreases exponentially with a time constant Ï„ given by:


where T is the absolute temperature, dT/dt is the cooling rate, R is the gas constant, and E0 is the activation energy in the “intrinsic” region (section 3).

In the uniformitarian scenario, nuclear decay produces helium at a nearly constant rate. At the beginning, when the zircon is very hot, helium diffuses out of the crystal as fast as nuclear decay produces it. But as the zircon cools, it will eventually reach a temperature at which the rates of loss and production are equal. That point is essentially what Dodson meant by the “closure” temperature. He showed that for this case, constant cooling rate, the closure temperature Tc is


Figure 8. Closure and re-opening of a zircon. Box on the left contains the essentials of Dodson’s Figure 1.
where A is a dimensionless constant (55 for a sphere), D0 is the infinite-temperature intercept in Fig. 4(a), a is the effective radius of the crystal, and Ï„ is the diffusion time constant given by eq. (19). Since Ï„ depends on the cooling rate, geoscientists imply some conventional cooling rate (usually 10°C per million years) when they specify a closure temperature. Assuming that cooling rate, the closure temperature of the Jemez Granodiorite zircons would be between +120°C and +140°C.

After the zircon cools below the closure temperature, helium begins to accumulate in it, as Fig. 8 shows. Later, as the temperature levels off to that of the surrounding rock, the diffusion coefficient D becomes constant. (The case of changing long-term temperatures is harder to analyze, but reopening will still occur.) As the amount of helium in the zircon increases, Fick’s laws of diffusion (section 3) say the loss rate also increases. Eventually, even well below the closure temperature, the loss rate approaches the production rate, an event we call the “reopening” of the zircon. Then the amount of helium in the zircon will level off at a steady-state value, which we called Q in eq. (16). After that, the zircon will again lose helium as fast as nuclear decay produces it.

Let us estimate the closure interval, the length of time tci the zircon remains closed before reopening As we remarked just below eq. (15), the helium production rate is Q0/t, where t is the uniformitarian age of the zircon, 1.5 billion years. Assuming a linear rise as a first approximation, the production rate multiplied by tci is roughly equal to Q, which is the right-hand side of our eq. (16) multiplied by Q0:


Solving for tci gives us the approximate closure interval:


If the closure interval is long compared to the age of the zircon, then the zircon would indeed be a closed system. But would that be the case in the uniformitarian view of the Jemez zircons? Using the effective radius of the zircons, 30 μm, and the measured values of D (Figure 7) in eq. (22) gives us tci values between a few dozen years and a few thousand years, depending on the temperature of the sample in the borehole. Those times are very small compared to the uniformitarian age of 1.5 billion years.

So even if the zircons had cooled rapidly and reached closure temperature early in their history, our measured diffusion rates say they would have reopened shortly after that. During most of the alleged eons the zircons would have been an open system. They would be losing as much helium as the nuclear decay produced. Thus closure temperature does not help uniformitarians in this case, because the closure interval is brief.

[19] Dodson, M. H., Closure temperature in cooling geochronological and petrological systems, Contributions to Minerology and Petrology 40:259–274, 1973.

[Update 2006, 2008: see also Dr Humphreys’ two responses to an apostate critic, on True Origins, and Helium evidence for a young world continues to confound critics: response to six years of critics, 29 November 2008.]