Shrinking Sun

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" #1: The sun is shrinking at 5 feet/hour which limits the earth-sun relationship to less than 5 million years.

The shrinking-sun argument contains two errors. The worst, by far, is the assumption that if the sun is shrinking today, then it has always been shrinking!

That's a little like watching the tide go out and concluding that the water level must have fallen at that rate since the earth began. Therefore, working backwards, much of the land must have been under water a few weeks ago! Since careful inspection shows no signs of such a flood, the earth can't be older than a few weeks!

Obviously, we cannot extend a rate willy-nilly. We do need to know something about the system under study. Tides come and go. No one familiar with tides would assume that the rate of water going out is constant over weeks of time! Just as obvious, at least to the experts, our sun could not have been continuously shrinking over millions of years as described by some creationists. Such a view totally ignores the known forces at work within our sun. Infinitely more likely is the possibility that our sun might alternate between small periods of shrinking and small periods of expansion, a kind of oscillation. Indeed, some scientists believe there may be an 80-day cycle of slight shrinking and expanding.

In its formative years, before our sun's core became hot and dense enough to ignite the fusion process and, as a result, check the gravitational collapse, our sun did do some prolonged shrinking. Billions of years from now the depletion of the sun's hydrogen will upset the sun's internal balance, and the sun will again undergo some long term changes. But, that has absolutely nothing to do with the shrinking-sun argument above, which attempts to prove that the solar system is less than 5 million years old.

To sum up our first point, the shrinking-sun argument rests squarely on a naive extension of a rate measured over a relatively short period of time. It's the type of blunder one might find in a high school science project.

An ad hoc attempt to prop up this naive extrapolation boldly declares that our sun is really getting its energy from gravitational collapse alone! An ongoing gravitational collapse of the sun, called the Helmholtz (or Kelvin-Helmholtz) contraction, was the best that scientists could come up with before nuclear fusion was discovered. The heat liberated from vast quantities of falling matter would be enough to make the sun shine. Then nuclear fusion was discovered. The discovery of nuclear fusion (and the realization that the sun's core had the density and temperature to initiate and sustain nuclear fusion) made it clear since the 1930s that the thermonuclear-fusion process was responsible for the sun's energy. Thermonuclear-fusion would soon stop any Helmholtz contraction. Aside from totally ignoring the last 60 years of solar science, this ad hoc argument also ignores the massive evidence relating to ancient climates. (A much larger sun in our recent geological past would have had a noticeable effect on the climate.) The creationist advocates of the Helmholtz contraction argue that their idea rules out the possibility of past geological ages. Just the opposite is true! The evidence for ancient climates, spanning millions of years, is massive and well documented; it rules out this ad hoc use of the Helmholtz contraction.

Howard J. Van Till, in Science Held Hostage, also points out that a contraction of five feet per hour would be hundreds of times faster than anything a legitimate Helmholtz contraction could handle! One might apply such a rate to just the outermost layers of the sun, but that probably wouldn't yield enough energy to account for the sun's brightness. The sun's current brightness, by Helmholtz's own calculations, would be consistent with a 25 million-year collapse from an initial solar diameter exceeding the earth's orbit (Kaufmann, 1994, p.322). Those "scientific" creationists have cut off their young-earth noses in order to have something to throw at us evolutionists! It was a terrible sacrifice, especially considering that they missed their target!

Blunder number two is the unwarranted assumption that the rate of shrinkage reported by Eddy and Boornazian is an established fact. Far from it! The rate of shrinkage was published as an abstract to further scientific discussion, not as a polished paper. Certain creationists nevertheless pounced upon it as though it were the Holy Grail. Before long, serious flaws in its methodology turned up and the data has since been discredited; the full text of their study was never published. It is instructive to note how creationist authors became fixated on that one point even though several studies at the time (or shortly thereafter) drew completely different conclusions.

Some creationists, such as Walter Brown, have tried to pump new life into the argument by quoting additional sources (Lippard,
1990, p.25), but only in vain. In Brown's case, two of the three sources offered were obsolete, and the third actually undercut his position! (Lippard, 1990, p.25). In a rebuttal to Lippard, Walter Brown offered no new studies to back up his "feeling" that the sun is undergoing a small, but continuous shrinkage (Brown, 1990, pp.45-46).

Brown, in his debate with Lippard, then dodged into the missing-neutrino problem in a vain effort to turn it into evidence for his position. (Neutrinos are subatomic particles with no electric charge and little or no mass. They are important here as a calculated by-product of the thermonuclear-fusion process in the sun. The vast majority of neutrinos pass effortlessly through the earth and are, therefore, extremely hard to detect.) To make his case, Brown must demonstrate that the "missing" neutrinos are due to a corresponding lack of nuclear fusion, and that the sun's current output of energy is due, in large part, to gravitational collapse. (A prolonged gravitational collapse of the sun is impossible once the thermonuclear-fusion process gets rolling. A creationist might argue that the coexistence of nuclear fusion and a Helmholtz contraction implies a young sun on its way to equilibrium. However, that would be a very tough row to hoe in that possible oscillations in the sun's diameter and other phenomena unrelated to a true Helmholtz contraction must be ruled out. Thus, Brown's motive for undermining the thermonuclear-fusion process by way of the missing-neutrino problem.)

As there are several possible solutions to the missing-neutrino problem (Lippard, 1990, p.32), Brown's scenario is an extremely tall order. Even if it were proved that there is a serious deficiency in solar nuclear fusion, that being the cause of the low neutrino count, Brown would still have to prove that the situation was permanent. It could be a temporary glitch or even part of some complex cycle. Thus, any attempt at the present time to use the missing-neutrino problem as support for a shrinking sun is wholly misguided. Furthermore, invoking a Helmholtz contraction in place of thermonuclear fusion is subject to all of the problems listed above.

It was in 1979 that astronomers John Eddy and Aram Boornazian presented their paper and published its abstract: "Secular Decrease in the Solar Diameter, 1836-1953." In the April 1980 issue of ICR's Impact series (Impact #82), Russell Akridge picked up the report and naively extended the shrinkage rate of 5 feet/hour into the indefinite past. As that soon led to an impossible situation, he concluded that the earth was much less than 20 million years old. Soon, Walter Brown, Thomas Barnes, Henry Morris, Hilton Hinderliter, James Hanson, and other creationists were in on the act, and the shrinking-sun argument became a creationist legend.

A number of studies have not found any evidence for a continuous shrinking of the sun. Leslie Morrison, for example, drawing on Edmund Halley's observations of the solar eclipse of 1715, concluded that there is no evidence that the sun is shrinking. His findings were reported in the January, 1988 issue of Gemini (no.18, pp.6-8). Gemini is the official journal of the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

Thomas Barnes, Walter Brown, and Henry Morris used the argument for several years after the original report by Eddy and Boornazian was discredited (Van Till, 1986). I guess a lot of creationists still haven't gotten the word. In his debate with Dr. Paul Hilpman, on June 15, 1992 at the Royal Hall of the University of Missouri, Dr. Hovind applied the obsolete, shrinking-sun argument.

Isolated from the corrective of continuing professional investigation and evaluation, the 'creation-science' community continues to employ this unwarranted extrapolation of a discredited report as 'scientific evidence' for a young Earth.
Van Till, 1986, p.17

That was true in 1986 and is true today; it will be true for years to come. "Scientific" creationism lives like the proverbial ostrich with its head buried in the sand; it has no effective mechanism to weed out error.

An outstanding study by H. Van Till (Van Till et al, 1988, pp.47-65) beautifully contrasts the sober scientific handling of the findings of John Eddy and Aram Boornazian (who advanced the scientific claim that the sun was shrinking) with the reckless, speculative spin put on it by the "scientific" creationists. The reader might also consult pages 29-39 where Van Till gives us an excellent feeling for what scientific competence, integrity, and judgment are all about. After reading that, one understands why "scientific" creationists are rarely published in the refereed scientific journals.