It may be Spider-man, The Incredible Hulk, or any number of monster movies that have given people the idea that radiation can turn a normal being into a monster, a being of super strength, or give an animal some new organ or function that no other living thing has. In recent months in discussions about the credibility of the biblical account, I have atheists contend that science has seen new organs develop in animals due to exposure to radiation in places like Chernobyl. The claim is that this explains major transitions in the evolutionary tree of life. This is an ignorant position and is not consistent with the effect that radiation has on living things.
When nuclear radiation strikes a living cell it ionizes material in the cell, meaning that it strips electrons from atoms within the cell. If the material that is ionized is in the DNA helix which controls the heredity of the cell, the baby produced from this DNA will have damage to whatever characteristic that section of the DNA controls. This is a destructive process, and nothing is added to the organism by such a change. If the characteristic that is affected is something undesirable and losing that characteristic would be helpful to the animal, the effect might be beneficial but the process is still destructive. An example might be that an animal living in a snow covered environment might have radiation strike the DNA section that controls his hair color, knocking out the color and making the animal white. This might give the animal an advantage making it harder to see in the snow, but the process is still destructive.
Things like Spider-man and the Hulk are pure fantasy. Virtually all radiation-induced mutations are destructive to the organism. They are also irreversible, something which biologists call the Dollo's law. If you knock out a characteristic by radiation, then you cannot bring it back. This characteristic is what makes radiation useful in fighting cancer. If cancer cells are reproducing in an uncontrolled way, exposing them to radiation can damage the reproduction mechanisms of the cell, making the cancer stop. The problem is that healthy cells are also affected, so negative side effects result from the radiation treatment.
Animals cannot add organs or useful processes due to exposure to radiation. Evolutionary theories involve cells recombining characteristics and a variety of cellular processes. You cannot zap an animal into a radically different animal.
The word radiation can include a wide range of particles and also includes some forms of light. Some materials give off an alpha particle, which consists of two protons and two neutrons. Some materials give of a beta particle, which is an electron. Some materials give off a very high energy form of light called a gamma ray. Even protons and neutrons can be radiation if they are emitted by a material to make it more stable. These different forms of radiation do not have the same capacity for destruction. An alpha particle can be stopped by a piece of cardboard. A brick will stop a beta particle, but it takes lead to stop a gamma ray. All of these radioactive particles can do damage to living tissue, and each one has certain uses to which they can be put which are dependent upon their properties.
Alpha particles are used in some smoke detectors. All kinds of radiation are used in industrial milling operations to control the thickness of materials as the milling operation takes place. In medicine these particles have different uses depending upon whether they are being used to treat a cancer, measure the function of an organ, or trace the path of some vein or artery in the body. Some radiation like infrared keeps us warm. Some like radio waves are used for communication. Some like microwaves cook our food. The nature of radiation is such that it comes in many different forms and has many different uses.
Many people do not understand that radiation dating is based on assumptions and is limited to certain time periods and materials. Virtually every element in the periodic chart has forms called isotopes that can give off radiation. We use some of these radioactive forms of materials for a variety of medical treatments and industrial uses. Radioactive iodine, for example, is used in measuring the activity of our thyroid. A material like this decays to an inert form in a relatively short period of time. The time it takes for a radioactive material to shed half of its mass is called the half-life of the material. If you had 10 grams of radioactive (iodine-131) which has a half-life of 8 days, in 8 days only 5 grams would be left. In another 8 days 2.5 grams would be left. In 8 more days 1.25 grams would be left until eventually there would be so little left it could not be measured.
Carbon-14 has a half-life of roughly 5700 years. That means carbon-14 is only used for the dating of relatively young things--mostly things related to human habitation. When we measure the amount of carbon-14 in a dinosaur's bone, we find there is none there. The material is too old to have any carbon-14 left--and no one has ever dated a dinosaur using carbon-14.
Some radioactive materials like uranium decay very, very slowly. The radiation comes out so slowly it would take 4 billion years for half of the material to decay. There are some 600 different materials known to man that decay and produce radiation, and most of them decay very rapidly--in a matter of seconds or hours. Only a handful decay over long periods of time, and thus only a few can be used to date things of great antiquity. In some cases these things of great antiquity can be dated by some other method. Human documents may have a date written on them. Biological techniques like racemization which is based on the orientation of molecules in living tissue, and magnetic dating based on changes in the earth's magnetic field can be used to check the accuracy of radiation dating.
Can anything change the rate of decay of radioactive materials? High voltages have been shown to have an effect on some materials. It is more likely that errors can be introduced by contamination or leaching of the sample.
One of the errors made by people on all sides of the evolution/creation controversy is the belief that radiation can tell us the history of what has happened in the past and when it happened. Some evolutionists have attempted to estimate the evolutionary change in organisms on the basis that radiation would change the genetic material in these organisms at a constant rate. This assumes that the level of radiation has not changed, and that no process like recombination has modified the process of change. Molecular clocks based on radiation and its effects on the genetic material of organisms are notoriously in error because of the assumptions upon which they are based. Background radiation can vary widely depending upon solar activity, supernovas, changes in the earth's magnetic field, and local additions of isotopes from a wide range of sources.
Creationists have attempted to use polonium halos as a means of denying fundamental geologic understandings about how rocks on the earth have formed and what their history has been. Granite has small amounts of the element of polonium in it--about 100 micrograms per metric ton. This radioactive material is produced when bismuth is struck by a neutron given off by uranium that is in the granite. The polonium gives off an alpha particle, gamma rays, and a lot of heat as it decays into lead with a half-life of 138 days. All of this energy will produce a ring in the granite called a polonium halo. Most of us have heard about the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned by polonium in 2006. Litvinenko was killed by the alpha particles and the incident has little relationship to the halos except the cause is the same. Alpha particles are regular emission products in granite that has uranium in it.
The claim has been made by some creationists that this proves that the granite must have been produced quickly, not over a long period as geologists believe. The comparison is made that if water is frozen with an Alka-Seltzer bubble in it, it would have to be frozen quickly. That comparison is very poor, because the halo is not frozen into the rock. The halo is produced when the polonium decays. The polonium is produced when a neutron from uranium in the granite strikes a bismuth atom producing the polonium. This could happen any time after the material was formed--even when it was a liquid. On top of this, there is a mountain of evidence that granite was formed very slowly. When a rock cools quickly like in the cooling of a lava, there are no visible large crystals, because the rock cooled too quickly for the crystals to form. In the laboratory we can demonstrate this very easily. If we allow the material to cool slowly, then small crystals begin to form and they grow with time. Granite does not cool quickly, and attempts to use polonium halos to prove that they do are most unfortunate.
Radiation is a natural part of the physical world in which we live. It can be used for many good things and can pose risks for us. We need to understand it and use it properly, both in addressing the problems mankind faces in the natural world and in understanding the past. When we properly understand science and when we look at what the Bible says--not at what people say it says--we will find that every shred of evidence available supports the Bible as God's word. It is accurate in every detail and useful in every aspect of our being.
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