Meteorite Dust, the Moon and Age of the Earth

How Good Are Those Young-Earth Arguments?
A Close Look at Dr. Hovind's List of Young-Earth Arguments and Other Claims
by Dave E. Matson
Copyright © 1994-2002

Young-earth "proof" #2: Given the rate at which cosmic dust accumulates, 4.5 billion years would have produced a layer on the moon much deeper than observed. By implication, the earth is also young.

The most amazing thing about the cosmic dust argument is that it is still being used! It has coasted along on obsolete evidence, and nothing but obsolete evidence, for the last 25 years!! It nicely illustrates how creationists borrow from each other and never do any outside reading.

The obsolescence of this argument has been brought out in numerous debates and published in countless books, journals, and newsletters. It can be discovered by anyone who exercises his or her library card. It's not a state secret! What does it take to get through to the creationist brain??

The earliest use of the cosmic dust argument that Van Till (Van Till et al, 1988) could find was in an article by Harold Slusher, which was published in the June 1971 issue of Creation Research Society Quarterly. Slusher made several blunders which are handed down in the "scientific" creationist literature to this very day. In 1974 the cosmic dust argument received its big kick-off from Henry Morris' book, Scientific Creationism. Morris quoted an article by Hans Pettersson in the February 1960 issue of Scientific American. Pettersson's upper estimate for the influx of cosmic dust, a figure he considered risky, was based on particles he collected from two filtration units in the Hawaiian Islands. One was located near the summit of Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and the other near the observatory on Haleakala, Maui. He came up with 39,150 tons/day. Pettersson actually favored a figure about two-thirds less, and he warned his readers that the true figure could be much lower still. Further work was planned in Switzerland.

This caution seems to have been lost on Henry Morris, who may have been relying on Slusher's work, and he ignored Pettersson's preferred value in favor of his highest estimate. By the time the Impact insert #110 of Acts & Facts (August 1982) came out, sporting as it did a collection of young-earth claims, the reader was being told that just prior to the manned, moon landing scientists were worried about a thick layer of dust. (Again, we have echoes of Slusher's article.) Of course, the sea of cosmic dust did not materialize, and the Impact article claimed a victory for creation science which supports a young moon without much cosmic dust. Steven Shore shows that this entire scenario is wrongheaded. Let's get a proper perspective on history:

In a conference held in late 1963, on the Lunar Surface Layer, McCracken and Dublin state that

"The lunar surface layer thus formed would, therefore, consist of a mixture of lunar material and interplanetary material (primarily of cometary origin) from 10 cm to 1 m thick. The low value for the accretion rate for the small particles is not adequate to produce large scale dust erosion or to form deep layers of dust on the moon, for the flux has probably remained fairly constant during the past several billion years." (p. 204)

(Shore, 1984, p.34)

In 1965, a conference was held on the nature of the lunar surface. The basic conclusion of this conference was that both from the optical properties of the scattering of sunlight observed from the Earth, and from the early Ranger photographs, there was no evidence for an extensive dust layer.

(Shore, 1984, p.34)

Thus, several years before men landed on the moon there was a general feeling that our astronauts would not be greeted by vast layers of cosmic dust. Although direct confirmation was not yet at hand, thus allowing a few dissenting opinions, few scientists expected even as much as three feet of cosmic dust on the moon. In May 1966 Surveyor I had landed on the moon, thus putting an end to any lingering doubts about a manned landing sinking in dust.

The cosmic dust argument was already obsolete by the time Henry Morris included it in his book, Scientific Creationism. It was already obsolete when Harold Slusher wrote his article three years earlier.

Since the late 1960s, much better and more direct measurements of the meteoritic influx to the Earth have been available from satellite penetration data. In a comprehensive review article, Dohnanyi [1972, Icarus 17: 1-48] showed that the mass of meteoritic material impinging on the Earth is only about 22,000 tons per year [60 tons/day]... Other recent estimates of the mass of interplanetary matter reaching the Earth from space, based on satellite-borne detectors, range from about 11,000 to 18,000 tons per year (67) [30-49 tons/day]; estimates based on the cosmic-dust content of deep-sea sediment are comparable (e.g., 11, 103).

(Dalrymple, 1984, p.109)

Thus, we have good satellite data from the late 1960s in addition to estimates from deep-sea sediment content, the latter going back to at least 1968 and yielding comparable figures. Satellite data goes back even further. On August 9-13, 1965 a symposium on meteor orbits and dust was sponsored by NASA and the Smithsonian Institute (Van Till et al, 1988, p.70). Results from the early microphone-type dust detectors (recording clicks as bits of space dust struck at high speeds) were compared with penetration detectors (which recorded holes punched in thin foil). At the time there was no clear explanation as to why the former method gave such higher counts, sometimes as much as a 100 times that of the penetration detectors. Shortly afterwards it was learned that the microphone-type detectors also picked up spacecraft noises due to thermal expansion and contraction as well as effects caused by solar flares and cosmic rays. Even so, those early detectors gave results which were 10 to 100 times smaller than Pettersson's figure.

Dohnanyi's figure of 60 tons/day includes everything from slowly settling dust to the average input of meteorites.

Dohnanyi's figure for the moon (2 x 10-9 grams/square centimeter per year) yields 2.3 tons/day. In 4.5 billion years a layer of about one and a half inches of cosmic dust would accumulate on the moon. (On the moon, of course, a ton would weigh much less. We're actually talking about a mass that would weigh 2.3 tons on Earth.)

In his book Age of the Cosmos, published in 1980, Harold Slusher devoted a chapter to the amount of space dust raining down on the earth. He dwells on Pettersson's 1960 figure of 39,000 tons/day and even produces a 1967 figure which gives a whopping 700,000 tons/day! Alan Hayward, a respected physicist and Bible-believing Christian, felt it necessary to make the following observation:

To write like that in 1980 was inexcusable. The two sources he quotes were dated 1960 and 1967--hopelessly out of date in a fast-changing area of science. They merely provide estimates of what the influx of meteoritic dust might possibly be.

But we no longer have to rely on estimates. A paper, published four years before Slusher's book, described how the amount of meteoritic dust in space has now been measured, with detectors mounted on satellites.

(Hayward, 1985, pp.142-143)

Hayward was referring to a July 1976 article by D. W. Hughes, published in the New Scientist, which gave a figure of 48 tons/day--enough to cover the earth with about 1.5 inches of dust during the earth's lifetime! It's nearly a 1000 times smaller than Pettersson's figure, and it utterly destroys the cosmic dust argument.

Because of the incredible amount of space junk orbiting the earth, modern estimates of incoming dust have become more difficult. However, with the 1990 retrieval of the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) satellite, which spent nearly six years in orbit, possibly the clearest figure yet is now available for the influx of space dust.

In the October 22, 1993, Science, Stanley G. Love and Donald E. Brownlee (University of Washington) describe their analysis of 761 small impact craters found on some of LDEF's aluminum-alloy plates. These surfaces continuously faced spaceward while the satellite was in orbit. ...As the researcher explain, this location was superbly suited for their study. It was largely protected from orbital debris and secondary impacts from collisions elsewhere on the satellite, and in pointing outward it also sampled a variety of interplanetary directions as LDEF orbited the Earth.

(Sky & Telescope, March 1994, p.13)

The article goes on to explain that dust particles as small as 35 trillionths of an ounce (10-9 grams) were detected. Love and Brownlee concluded that each year the earth collects about 40,000 metric tons (121 tons/day) which is a bit higher than the less direct figures given above. The results are "comparable to rates crudely calculated from the long-term accumulation of the rare element iridium in sea sediment and Antarctic ice."

Thus, the very latest, and possibly the best, cosmic dust influx measurement dooms the creationist argument once again. (How many strikes does it take before you're out in creationland? Answer: Who knows? They play by no rules and have no referees.) In summary, the general scientific consensus, going back to the 1960s, has been borne out by numerous measurements during the last 25 years.

Perhaps these constant reminders about obsolete data finally got to Henry Morris. Yet, he did not drop the cosmic dust argument like a hot potato, as one might expect. To the contrary, his second edition of Scientific Creationism (1985) expanded his footnote reference to Pettersson to suggest that a much more recent source from NASA gave an even larger influx of dust! The reader was referred to: "G.S. Hawkins, Ed., Meteor Orbits and Dust, published by NASA, 1976" (Wheeler, 1987, p.14). Thus, Morris appeared to have an unimpeachable source which was even more recent than Dohnanyi's figure!

Frank Lovell, suspecting that years of direct measurement from space (supported by sea floor studies) could not be that wrong, smelling a rat as it were, checked up on the source. It turned out that the actual date was 1967! The digits had been reversed (Wheeler, 1987, pp.14-15). Furthermore, the figure quoted by Morris (200 million tons of dust each year) was not given in the original source! It was a calculation based on the original source, done by an unnamed "creationist physicist" who botched it! The unsuspecting reader would have assumed that the rate had the official blessing of NASA. Astronomer Larry W. Esposito had some choice words concerning this incredible fiasco by Henry Morris:

...the work is incorrectly cited, outdated, from a non-referenced symposium publication, based on unreliable data. The calculation multiplies together unrelated numbers: the product of these factors is not a reliable estimation of the current cosmic dust deposition rate.

(Wheeler, 1987, p.15)

Wheeler and Lovell were party to another strange, creationist tale of reversed digits! They had written a letter to a religious magazine, Concern, published in Louisville, Kentucky, and had criticized an article which had used Pettersson's obsolete figure for cosmic dust influx. Concern published that letter along with a reply from the author of the original article. The author stated that Richard Bliss (a member of the Institute for Creation Research) had written the following to him in a letter:

It seems that we have estimates on meteor dust deposition, based on various assumptions, of the total volume of incoming meteoritic material ranging from 800,000 to 1 x 106 tons per day. You can get this information from the following sources:

1. Space Handbook, Astronautics and its Applications by R.W. Beucherin and staff of the Rand Corporation, Random House, NY 1959.

2. Nazarove, I.N. Rocket and Satellite Investigations of Meteors presented at the fifth meeting of the COMITE Speciale De I'annee Geophysique International, Moscow, August 1985.

(Wheeler, 1987, p.15)

The first source was even more obsolete than Pettersson's, but the second one was dated 1985. In response to a query, Bliss said that he got the figures from Harold Slusher, also of ICR. Several attempts to get through to Slusher failed.

Finally it occurred to us that the date cited for this reference, like that of Morris, might be incorrect. The International Geophysical Year ("I'annee Geophysique International") was 1957-1958, and I found in Nature [182:294 (1958)] that the fifth meeting of the Special Committee was held in Moscow in July-August 1958, and that it included a symposium on the rocket and satellite program; this obviously was the source of Slusher's reference.

(Wheeler, 1987, p.15)

Thus, we have a second case of inverted digits! A complaint about obsolete data was answered with data even more obsolete!! The average reader, of course, would never have guessed that the citation was bogus.

Thus, creationism carried its obsolete banner ever forward. In 1989, Walter Brown came out with the 5th edition of his booklet In the Beginning. He was no longer quoting Pettersson as was the case in older editions. Nevertheless, he calculated that in 4.6 billion years 2,000 feet of dust should have accumulated on the moon.

Brown says his figure is based on data from two sources, Stuart R. Taylor's Lunar Science: A Post-Apollo View (New York: Pergamon Press, 1975, p.92) and David W. Hughes's "The Changing Micrometeoroid Flux" (Nature 251(379-380), 4 October 1974). Hughes gives no basis for any calculation.

(Schadewald, 1990, p.16)

As for Taylor's paper, Schadewald identifies the appropriate distribution equation, makes use of the calculus and shows that even if we extend the range of particles way beyond what was actually detected we would get a layer of dust only 1 inch deep! Schadewald was left wondering where Brown got his 2000 feet of dust! Perhaps, he mused, Brown had moon dust in his eyes when he made that calculation.

I shouldn't tease Dr. Brown since I blew the initial calculations before correcting myself! The equation which Schadewald uses (from Taylor) is:

log(N) = -1.62 - 1.16 log(m)

N is the number of bodies with masses greater than m, which impact a square kilometer of moon per year. The density of the dust is given as 3 grams/cubic centimeter. It does make a difference which units one uses for mass. The context of Schadewald's article suggests that the proper mass units are grams (not kilograms), and a little playing around with the equation makes that reasonably clear. If one erroneously uses kilograms and integrates N(m) over a range of 10-16 kilograms to 1020 kilograms, a figure of 2259 feet of dust may be obtained for a period of 4.6 billion years. Possibly something like that happened in Dr. Brown's calculation. (By the way, if you are not familiar with mathematics, just hop over these little diversions. I dive into the mathematics, at times, to give the more able reader the finer points. You don't need them to get the general drift.)

If I understand the equation properly, a straightforward integration of N(m) is not the most precise method, but it does yield a good approximation to the answers I got. For a mass range of 100Kg to 1000Kg I calculate that 4.6 billion years would deposit a layer of dust 0.107mm (4 thousandths of an inch) thick. For a mass range of 100gms to 1000Kg I get 0.79mm. However, in extending the calculation to extremes, from 10-13 grams to 1023 grams, I came up with 26.4cm (10.4 inches) instead of 2.5cm which Schadewald got. The point is that you wouldn't even get 10.4 inches of dust in 4.6 billion years, being that the formula is not accurate for these extreme ranges. Attempts to inflate this value further, by going to even greater ranges, is simply an abuse of the formula and proves nothing.

Neither the above formula, when properly used, nor actual measurements made in space offer anything close to the huge amounts of cosmic dust needed in this young-earth argument. Of course, a little thing like that would never stop those creationists from circulating it!

Today, armies of creationists, such as Dr. Hovind, carry forth the banner of the cosmic dust argument, and some of them are still using Pettersson's 1960 calculations! As for Dr. Hovind, he seems to have written a new chapter altogether! In his June 15, 1992 debate with Dr. Hilpman in the Royal Hall of the University of Missouri, Dr. Hovid calmly stated that scientists had predicted that 182 feet of cosmic dust would be found on the moon based on an accumulation of 1 inch every 10,000 years. I played that video segment three times to make sure I had it right! Had he checked those figures he would have found that they represent two different rates, that of 4144 tons/day and a whopping 872,798 tons/day! Compare either figure to the 2.3 tons/day given by Dohnanyi which was based on actual measurements made in space. The cosmic dust argument, having been obsolete for 25 years, has now entered the realm of comedy! Perhaps, I should have said "tragedy" since this is the kind of nonsense creationists want to teach our children.

Did I say "want to teach"? It may interest you to know that a sixth-grade science textbook Observing God's World, published by A Beka Book Publications in 1978, made use of the cosmic dust argument! (Van Till et al, 1988, p.78). It was probably written for one of those private, "Christian" schools which don't teach evolution. I certainly hope that none of our public schools have sunk that low! There's something rotten about foisting such sleazy garbage on children who look to their teachers for knowledge.

For an excellent study of this moon dust argument, read Clarence Menninga (Van Till et al, 1988, pp.67-82). If you do, you will find that there are still more blunders associated with this infamous creationist argument!

A few young-earth creationists do show signs of acute embarrassment, and in them there is some light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Some of them are trying to set up a review process to weed out errors in the creationist literature. However, I'm afraid that when the last of the bath water is thrown out, no baby will be found!

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