Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Rotation of the Earth

The earth is slowing down and the day is getting longer. I wouldn’t start making any plans for that extra time however because it only amounts to about 5 milliseconds per year. That’s 5 one thousandths of a second so in about 200 years you’ll gain about one second per year.

And that’s about where we are since the last day was calibrated to 86,400 seconds in 1820. In 2005 the current day was about 86,400.002 seconds. That’s a gain of something slightly greater than .730 seconds.

By now I’m sure you’re asking yourself “Is this something I really need to be concerned about?” Well, not really, but the slowing of the earth’s rotation is one of the arguments used by creationists to claim that evolution is impossible. Actually there are two arguments in this category; a simple one and a more sophisticated one.

Let’s talk about the simple one and the folks at Religious Tolerance first.

If you’re not familiar with “ReligiousTolerance.org” it’s a web site maintained by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance and is about as neutral a site as exists when it comes to religion. They stand for tolerance and mutual respect and say in their statement of beliefs that they believe “In the inherent worth of every person. People are worthy of respect, support, and caring simply because they are human.”

I don’t agree with them on everything and in some ways I find them rather naïve but clearly their hearts are in the right place. They tend to tread very delicately around controversial issues but do have several pages related to the evolution versus creationism question.

On one of these called “A Failed Attempt to Dialogue with Young Earth Creation Scientists” they describe a simple misunderstanding related to the slowing of the earth’s rotation and the need to add “leap seconds” in order to prevent the error from exceeding .9 seconds. The simple misunderstanding was that since leap seconds were added at the rate 0f .7 per year, that the earth was slowing at a rate of .7 seconds per year.

If you extrapolate that back 4.5 billion years it yields a rotation of about 14 minutes rather than the current 24 hours! Such a rapid rotation would have flattened the earth into a pancake which obviously didn’t happen.

Actually, the earth has slowed at a rate of somewhere between .005 and .006 seconds per year depending upon whose numbers you use. The Goddard Space Center says that the solar day is increasing 1.5 milliseconds per century which would be (.0015*365.25)/100 = .00548 seconds per year so I think I’ll use that number.

If you extrapolate that back 4.5 billion years it yields a rotation of about 13.5 hours rather than the current 24 hours, faster certainly, but well within the realm of possibility. Now please note this is a simple misunderstanding about the significance of the leap seconds leading to a simple mathematical aberration. There is no interpretation or subjectivity here, its straight fact and mathematics.

Now comes the fun part. Like I said the folks at RT are a little naïve. They contacted fifteen creationist web sites with the objective of simply pointing out the error so they could remove the argument. They looked upon this as a “win-win” situation as follows:

“The cause of creation science would benefit, because the invalid ‘proof’ of a young earth would be withdrawn. Their credibility would increase in the minds of the public.”

“The cause of evolution would benefit, because the creation scientists would have one fewer ‘proof’ of a young earth.”

So what happened? In RT’s own words, with commentary.

“One webmaster thanked us for our interest. However, they will not change their web site because it is an archive of previously published materials. Thus, accuracy is unimportant.”

Accuracy is unimportant!? An honest broker would at least note the error in order to prevent readers from being misled.

“A second webmaster responded, but said that there are no inaccuracies in Scott Huse's book.”

I assume that’s the source of the argument for that web site. Well, I beg to differ; there is clearly at least ONE inaccuracy.

“A third webmaster responded, asking for information on our identity and motivation. They also asked for more information about the error.”

Paranoid? Who’s paranoid? More information about the error!? You don’t understand arithmetic?

"A fourth webmaster thanked us for our E-mail."

Well that was nice of him.

"The remaining 11 webmasters have not replied to our E-mail."

One individual other than the webmaster “responded to our query. However, his site leaves the original error in place. He wrote that he has many quotes from scientists which suggest that many dating methods are equivocal. ‘It is not a crime to present a differing viewpoint.’”

I didn’t know arithmetic had differing viewpoints.

None of the 15 web sites has been changed (emphasis RT’s). Persuading the webmasters of these creation science web sites to correct their error appears to be quite impossible. In fact, dialog seems to be hopeless.”

No real surprise here. The dishonesty of Christians, whether pitching creationism, biblical inerrancy, bible instruction in the public schools, the display of Christian icons in public places or the denial of gay marriage, is legendary. The dishonesty of Christians is what demonstrates that Christianity is a bankrupt philosophy undeserving of respect or adherence.

The RT folks gave it up with the following conclusion.

“The experiment has convinced the author that meaningful dialog is probably impossible. Supporters of creation science -- at least the 15 contacted -- seem to be totally resistant to change. Attempts to correct these websites are probably not worth pursuing.”

Yup, I’ve also learned that any "meaningful dialog" is impossible.

However, there is a more sophisticated creationist argument revolving around the slowing of the earth’s rotation. This combines the slowing of the earth with the receding of the moon from the earth. The CreationWiki web site provides an excellent example of this argument on its refutation of Talk Origins explanation of the slowing of the earth’s rotation.

I’m no expert in celestial physics, but there are some problems with the CreationWiki presentation starting with its estimate of .008812 seconds per year “based on data from the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics.”

What data? This is .0033 seconds faster than any other number I’ve seen. Second is the statement that this yields a 7 hour rotation when extrapolated back 4.5 billion years. My arithmetic yields a 10.6 hour rotation. I could be wrong, but I checked several times.

Third is the presentation of the current measured rate of recession of the moon at 3.82 cm per year. This is a measurement made possible by the three cornered mirrors left behind on the lunar surface by the Apollo astronauts. This number is important because the closer the moon is to the earth, the faster the earth should be slowing down if the moon's gravity is the dominant factor. As we shall see both this number and the assumption are sort of accurate but misleading.

Finally, CreationWiki makes the assertion that if you plug these values (.008812 seconds per year and 3.82 cm per year) into the “laws of physics,” without ever articulating those laws, one can show that the earth cannot be older than 1.2 billion years so therefore evolution is impossible.

I’m not even going to make an issue about not defining the “laws of physics.” I’m going to make three points and then present a conclusion.

Point #1 – 1.2 billion years is 120,000 times the 10,000 or so years that Young Earth Creationists claim is the age of the earth based upon an inerrant bible. So, if nothing else, the calculations have demonstrated that if the earth is anywhere near that old, the bible is not inerrant and therefore fundamentalist Christianity is a false teaching. Of course that is the upper limit so I guess it's possible for the earth to be only 10,000 years old, just terribly unlikely given the range of options.

Point #2 – Like I said before, I don’t know where the .008812 seconds per year number came from, everyone else’s number is closer to .0054 seconds per year. You’ll excuse me if I take the word of NASA rather than a vague claim “based on data from the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics” which isn't identified.

Point #3 – The current recession of the moon at 3.82 cm per year has been shown to be abnormally high. The rate of recession is affected by continental drift and was much slower in the past. Two converging pieces of evidence demonstrate this. The first are computer models which take into account the effect of continental drift and the second is paleontological evidence based upon the study of tidal rhythmites (sediment). The rhythmites indicate that between 2.5 billion years ago and 650 million years ago the lunar recession had a mean of around 1.27 cm per year and between 650 million years ago and today, the mean was around 2.16 cm per year.

Conclusion – When you take into account the reduced current slowdown and the reduced recession rates and plug them into the same “laws of physics” you get, TA-DA, about 4.5 billion years or so. Therefore the only thing CreationWiki managed to show was that most likely the bible is wrong and fundamentalist Christianity is a crock, but we all already knew that.

Actually this is not on the same order as the simple case. Here, there is much to discuss about which are the right numbers, the validity of the computer models, the precise calculations to be used and the trustworthiness of the conclusions from the rhythmite studies.

The problem is that all the information I've presented is readily available. If you disagree with it, acknowledge it and show why you believe it’s invalid. You cannot simply ignore it because it ruins your calculations.

I might be wrong but I've presented both sets of numbers and arguments and explained why I don't believe I am. That's what science is all about. It's about dealing with the facts as they are understood even if those facts indicate you might be wrong.

This would be the perfect opportunity for a "meaningful dialogue." But as the folks from Religious Tolerance discovered, that's almost impossible with a creationist.

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