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Is the Speed of Light Slowing Down?
By Tommy Huxley
Posted on: 4/20/2002
Was the speed of light once many orders of magnitude faster than it is now, decaying with the introduction of evil to the universe?
For those young-Earth creationists who insist that our universe is only 6,000 years old (according to their stubborn misinterpretation of the Bible), the strongest evidence against them is the fact that we can see the light from stars and galaxies that lie billions of light years away. Since light travels at a finite speed through space, the distance to stellar objects are often measured by how long it took the light from those stars to reach us.
For example, astronomers say that the Crab Nebula lies 4,000 light years away from us. That means we are now seeing what that nebula look liked two thousand years before the birth of Christ. When we look anywhere at the night sky, we are, in fact, looking into the past.
But if our universe is only 6,000 years old, that means 99 percent of the entire visible universe should be invisible. And that not only includes visible light, but the stars’ emissions across the entire electromagnetic spectrum from ultraviolet, x-ray, infrared, to radio waves.
Young-Earth creationists have proposed two explanations to resolve the conflict between what they see, and what they think the Bible “says” about what they see.
Their first rationale is that God created the universe with “apparent” age. Although stellar objects could be as far away as astronomers maintain, God created its starlight in transit from a point in space no more than 6,000 light years distant.
This theory’s biggest advantage is that it can withstand any scientific rebuttal. If God created the universe with the appearance of age, then all historical evidences are moot. You could just as easily claim that God created the universe yesterday and implanted our memories by design.
How could you refute that premise? Can anyone disprove the miraculous? Aren’t miracles exempt from natural laws? When I asked one creationist about this online two years ago, he responded, “So what? The appearance of age hypothesis is scientifically valid because astronomers concoct stranger theories than that!”
Actually, I love this theory because it exposes young-Earth creationists for the notorious hypocrites that they are. For example, many creationists doggedly insist that evolution is a religious dogma sold to a gullible public by conniving hucksters without a single shred of scientific evidence. Phillip Johnson, a creationist lawyer, persistently makes that allegation.
But when creationists then have to turn around and argue that God invented the universe with the illusion of a history that never happened, it puts them in an awkward, uncomfortable position to point fingers at their opponents and shout “Religion!”
Probably for this reason (and others, such as where and when in time and space did supernovas explode?), young-Earth creationists invented a new apologetic — that the speed of light has gradually slowed down during its long transit through space.
According to creationists, the speed of light used to be instantaneous. But after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis chapter three, God cursed his entire creation, causing the speed of light to “decay” with the rest of the cosmos. And if the speed of light slowed down during its long transit through space, creationists can breathe a sigh of relief. Their new Biblical defense puts the age of the universe comfortably back into the 6,000-year-old range where they don’t have to mentally juggle conflicting rationalizations.
This is sometimes referred to as the “tired light” theory. And the scientific justification for this hypothesis is built upon a contrived hoax.
If you go to this page at Walter Brown’s Center for Scientific Creation web site, Doc Brown says:
During the last 300 years, at least 164 separate measurements of the speed of light have been published. Sixteen different measurement techniques were used. Astronomer Barry Setterfield of Australia has studied these measurements, especially their precision and experimental errors. His results show that the speed of light has apparently decreased so rapidly that experimental error cannot explain it! In the seven instances where the same scientists measured the speed of light with the same equipment years later, a decrease was always reported.The CSC is one of the worst creation science organizations for perpetuating obsolete hoaxes. In the above example, Doc Brown breathlessly tells us that his fellow young-Earth creationist, Barry Setterfield, discovered 164 separate measurements that showed the speed of light slowing down over the past 300 years.
Before accepting that claim outright, I’m surprised most creationists don’t pause for a little cautious forethought. Common sense suggests that 17th-century physicists didn’t have modern equipment to measure such phenomena. Instead, these early scientists relied upon hopelessly out-of-date methods and apparatuses.
But worse, Setterfield’s figures are also dead wrong! He says that Roemer in 1675 and Bradley in 1728 measured the speed of light at 301,300 and 301,000 kilometers per second, respectively. Yet the real historical figures were, in fact, Roemer at 214,300 kilometers per second and Bradley at 295,000 kilometers per second.
Had Setterfield reported these accurate figures, originally, he could have demonstrated that the speed of light increased over the past 300 years, instead! Did Setterfield deliberately misrepresent his data, or did he make an honest mistake? We’ll never know because young-Earth creationists seldom, if ever, print retractions. Instead, they often repeat dead, discredited myths indefinitely. Why? Doesn’t the Bible encourage honesty among Christians?
Setterfield also graphed a curve that extrapolated his bogus figures back to infinity (an absurd, unscientific tactic) so that the speed of light’s infinite velocity started decaying at 4,040 BC, plus or minus 20 years, during the period Setterfield refers to as “Creation and The Fall.”
It’s true that scientists reported inconsistent rates throughout history, but between 1927 and 1960, the fastest and slowest rates were off by only one part in ten thousand. The figures showed a slight decrease in speed between 1927 to 1935, remained roughly constant between 1935 to 1950, and then slightly increased between 1950 and 1960.
Does that mean the speed of light alternately sped up and slowed down over three decades? Or, as is more likely, did the experimental processes improve over time?
And today, the speed of light has remained unchanged since 1960. Is Barry Setterfield trying to tell us that the speed of light steadily deteriorated from “The Fall” until 1927, wavered up and down for thirty-three years, and then progressed at a fixed, constant rate from 1960 until today? Is Setterfield promoting weird science or magical apologetics?
Doc Brown says other peculiar things about starlight on his web site. For example:
Starlight from distant stars and galaxies is red-shifted — meaning that the light is redder than it should be. (Most astronomers have interpreted the red-shifted light to be a wave effect, similar to the pitch of a train’s whistle that is lower when the train is going away from an observer. The greater the redshift, the faster stars and galaxies are supposedly moving away from us.) Since 1976, William Tifft, a University of Arizona astronomer, has found that the redshifts of distant stars and galaxies typically differ from each other by fixed amounts. This is very strange if stars are moving away from us. It would be as if galaxies could travel only at specific speeds, jumping abruptly from one speed to another, without passing through intermediate speeds. If stars are not moving away from us at high speeds, the big bang theory is incorrect, along with most other beliefs in the field of cosmology. Many other astronomers, not believing Tifft’s results, have done similar work, only to reach the same conclusions as Tifft.It’s hard to find Doc Brown’s point in all this gobbledygook, but I suppose it means that he can’t understand why different redshifts don’t show greater variations of recessional speeds.
Indeed, that’s an interesting physics question. But… so what? Is Doc Brown suggesting that because recessional speeds don’t show a wider variation, that phenomenon, in turn, depicts a universe that is considerably younger than ten billion years? How would that affect the age of the universe? That’s like saying natural selection is impossible because you’ve discovered that different bacteria acquire antibiotic resistance at different rates. Naturally, the argument is irrelevant to the subject you’re trying to refute.
Likewise, some remote galaxies (like Andromeda) are blueshifted, which means that they’re coming toward us. And all these blueshifted galaxies show a narrow range of looming velocities, too. But again… so what? Does that prove our universe is only 6,000 years old?
Here’s another example of Doc Brown’s weird science:
Atoms behave in a similar way. That is, they give off tiny bundles of energy (called quanta) of fixed amounts — and nothing in between. So Setterfield believes that the “quantization of redshifts,” as many refer to the phenomenon, is an atomic effect, not a strange recessional velocity effect. If a property of space is slowly removing energy from all emitted light, it would do so in fixed increments. This would also redshift starlight, with the furthest star’s light being red-shifted the most. Furthermore, it would also slow the velocity of light and the vibrational frequency of the atom, all of which is observed. Setterfield is currently working on a theory to tie all of this together.The above is yet another example of the “tired light” hypothesis. According to Doc Brown, starlight is redshifted because it is “losing energy” instead of showing a Doppler effect. But astronomers have measured identical redshifts across many different frequencies. If starlight were losing energy, the spectral lines of hydrogen would show an identical blurring across all the redshifts. Yet they don’t.
What’s more, creationists never bother to think their speculations all the way through. If they insist that redshifting is due to starlight losing energy, then blueshifting must mean that starlight is spontaneously gaining energy, as well. Young-Earth creationists must be consistent. They can’t switch to a different apologetic in mid-stride.
And if starlight speeding through space is gaining energy, than creationists are violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics (!) because they’re suggesting that starlight is gaining energy from nothing! How would starlight obtain an energy boost from a vacuum?
Doc Brown also demonstrates that he’s out of touch with modern astronomical discoveries with statements like this:
Another surprising observation is that the most distant galaxies look remarkably similar to nearer galaxies. For example, galaxies are fully developed and show no signs of evolving. This puzzles astronomers. If the speed of light has decreased drastically, these distant, yet mature, galaxies no longer need explaining.Perhaps Doc Brown isn’t aware of the Hubble Deep Field picture taken in 1996 by the Hubble Space Telescope that shows young galaxies in many different stages of galactic formation. Also, the most distant and oldest objects ever observed in the universe are quasars (quasi-stellar radio sources) that are unlike anything that exist today. Many astronomers believe quasars show active galaxies developing in a process that’s now obsolete.
But if you want to see an example of Doc Brown’s Really! Weird! Science!, read the following:
How can we test whether the speed of light has decreased a million-fold? If it has, we should observe events in outer space in extreme slow motion. Here is why.The above story is pure science fiction that’s easily refuted. The fact is, astronomers regularly observe pulsars and Cepheid variable stars whose cycles do not change with distance at all!
Consider a time in the distant past when the speed of light was a million times faster than it is today. On a hypothetical planet, billions of light-years from Earth, a light started flashing toward Earth every second. Each flash then began a very long trip to Earth. Since the speed of light was a million times greater than it is today, those initial flashes were spaced a million times further apart in distance than they would have been at today’s slower speed of light.
Thousands of years have now passed. Throughout the universe, the speed of light has slowed to today’s speed, and the first of those flashes — strung out like beads sliding down a long string — are approaching Earth. The distances separating adjacent flashes have remained constant during these thousands of years, because the moving flashes slowed in unison. Since the first flashes to strike Earth are spaced so far apart, they will strike Earth every million seconds. In other words, we are seeing past events on that planet — in slow motion. If the speed of light has been decreasing since the creation, then the further out in space we look, the more extreme this slow motion becomes.
As one example, galaxies would be seen in slow motion. Galaxies that appear to spin at a rate of once every 200 million years would be spinning much faster. This might explain the partial twist seen in all spiral galaxies. If the speed of light has not decreased, and there is no slow-motion effect, then why do billion-year-old spiral galaxies, at all distances, show about the same twist?
And where is Doc Brown’s evidence that the speed of light was once “a million times greater than it is today?” A million times? Where did he pluck that extraordinary figure? Did he just make it up?
To summarize, young-Earth creationists from Doc Brown’s Center for Scientific Creation have not explained how the universe could be only 6,000 years old when we can still see the light of stellar objects more than 6,000 light years away. In addition:
- The empirical evidence still suggests that starlight has always traveled at a steady, finite speed through space.
- When we look at galaxies outside of our own Milky Way, we’re still seeing what they looked like in the past before the Biblical creation date 6,000 years ago.
- The “appearance of age” rationale is scientifically bankrupt. The explanation would falsify all historical evidences because it’s pleading to supernatural intervention.
- Setterfield never recorded a historical decrease in the speed of light. Some of his data is dead wrong. If he’d recorded it correctly the first time, his figures would’ve suggested that the speed of light increased over the past 300 years instead, making the universe even older than current astronomical predictions!
- A narrow range of redshift velocities, although interesting, doesn’t offer aid and comfort to those who believe that the universe is only 6,000 years old. Doc Brown is making an irrelevant correlation between recessional speeds and the universe’s age.
- Redshifts are not caused by starlight losing energy. Otherwise, how would you explain the existence of blueshifts? A consistent creationist explanation would be that blueshifts are caused by starlight gaining energy from nothing. And, of course, that violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
- All galaxies don’t show the same level of maturity. The Hubble Deep Field, among other deep space photographs, shows diverse stages of galaxy formation. And the situation will get worse for young-Earth creationists when NASA launches its Next Generation Space Telescope in 2007. I feel sorry for Christians who must anticipate each new astronomical discovery with looming dread and frenzied spin doctoring.
- Stars and galaxies don’t move in slow motion relative to their distance. And the speed of light was never, never, “a million times greater than it is today.” Both are crackpot claims without a single thread of scientific support.
Believe it or not, all the resources I used for this essay (other than those on the web) came from books written by evangelical Christians who preach old-Earth style creation science.
How do young- and old-Earth creationists, who all claim to receive wisdom and guidance from the Holy Spirit while reconciling scientific findings with the Bible, still reach such contradictory views? Is the Holy Spirit dispensing fickle, erratic advice to those who seek him?
- Hayward, Alan. Creation and Evolution: Rethinking the Evidence from Science and the Bible, Bethany House Publishers, 1985.
- Hereen, Fred. Show Me God: What the Message from Space is Telling Us About God, Day Star Books, Revised Edition, 1997.
- Ross, Hugh Norman. Creation and Time: A Biblical and Scientific Perspective on the Creation-Date Controversy, NavPress, 1994.
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