Cosmos Review: “The Clean Room”

Episode Seven of Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on April 22, 2014

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See Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey for reviews of other episodes and discussion guides for further study.

Many of us have heard all our lives (literally for those born after 1956 when the number was “established”) that the Earth is about four and a half billion years old, but where did the number come from? “The Clean Room”—episode seven of Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey—tells the story of “one man’s quest” to discover what host Neil deGrasse Tyson assures viewers (six times) is the “true age of the Earth.” The answer might surprise many.

What is not surprising to us is that Tyson makes claims that have been proven incorrect, ignores glaring inconsistencies in the scientific data on which this “true age” depends, and treats as factual the numerous unverifiable assumptions on which this house of cards—the 4.55-billion-year “true age of the Earth”—rests.

The “true age of the Earth” cannot be determined without reference to a reliable historical record. Tyson says we have now turned away from the Bible’s “authoritative” history to “another book” that is “written in the rocks themselves.” The record written in the rocks, however, cannot be correctly read without a knowledge of the historical events that shaped them. And if the rocks are the source of that history, then all those singing the 4.55-billion-year song are depending on circular reasoning.

Please note: there are several instances of objectionable language in this episode of Cosmos.

The Irony of Bias Unrecognized

This episode spends its final half hour sharing the story of how one scientist—Claire Patterson, whose work determined the so-called “true age”—stood against “big money” corporations and the scientists whose allegiance they purchased to finally convince Western civilization that no level of lead poisoning is acceptable. The program makes it clear that Patterson and scientists who once upon a time claimed that dumping lead into the environment was harmless were looking at the same information and interpreting it differently.

How ironic that the Cosmos writers shine light on how scientists’ biases affect how they interpret the same data! Bias doesn’t just come from a desire for money, prestige, or power. Bias also comes from a scientist’s worldview. For the “true age of the Earth,” the answer a scientist—any scientist—chooses to believe depends on whose account of Earth’s history he or she is willing to accept:

  1. History derived from the assumptions of fallible men and women who openly reject the eyewitness history in God’s Word
  2. History derived from our eternal, omniscient, truthful Creator God who has told us the truth in the Bible, a history that consistent with and confirmed by the actual observable facts of science

The bias of many scientists is to reject God’s Word. That bias blinds them to the inconsistencies of their own interpretations. That bias has led Tyson and many others to think they have discovered the “truth” when they have in fact rejected the only source of truth about our origins as well as our spiritual condition and our eternal destiny: Jesus Christ (John 14:6; Colossians 1:16–17; 2:3) and His written Word (John 5:46–47).

What God’s Word Says

So what is that biblical authority that Tyson mockingly rejects? Tyson tells us that 17th century scholar Archbishop Ussher “like almost everyone else of his time and his world . . . accepted the biblical account of creation as authoritative.” Ussher examined the Bible’s historical record for an event to synchronize with our familiar calendar systems and then, by adding the interlocked ages and events in the Old Testament counted back to arrive at a creation date of 4004 BC. Tyson mocks the specificity of the calculation that resulted from Ussher’s precise handling of numbers coupled with some extra-biblical assumptions related to the Jewish calendar. Bible-believing Christians understand, however, that only rarely does the Bible give the month and day of an event; thus, we freely acknowledge that the biblically calculated date of Creation may vary within a very narrow window of a few years—but only a few, not billions.

Sir Isaac Newton—on whose shoulders modern science rests—defended Ussher’s work. Because God’s Word, though recorded by about 40 writers over a span of about 1,500 years, is internally consistent, other scholars have independently conducted the same calculations and arrived at strikingly similar dates. Dr. Floyd Nolen Jones for instance, a geophysicist and a modern Bible scholar, records his very readable but exhaustive analysis in Chronology of the Old Testament.

And for the record, though Tyson correctly mentions Nebuchadnezzar’s death as the anchoring date on which Ussher rested his work, there are actually three such dates now known that allow us to synchronize biblical history with our calendar systems:

  1. The Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, which can be calculated from Nebuchadnezzar’s death and occurred in Nebuchadnezzar’s 19th year (Jeremiah 52:12–14; 32:1)
  2. The battle of Carchemish in Nebuchadnezzar’s first year and Judah’s king Jehoiakim’s fourth (Jeremiah 25:1; 46:2)
  3. The 15th year of the reign of Tiberias Caesar, which was also the 30th year of our Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 3:1, 23)

We certainly commend readers who are serious about seeing the internal consistency of Scripture, which contains no contradictions, to study Dr. Jones’s instructive book with an open Bible.

Another Book—Written in the Rocks

Tyson tells us that upon rejecting the Bible’s history “we turned to another book to find the age of the Earth—the one that was written in the rocks themselves.” And though he takes us to the Grand Canyon to see that record, he explains the Grand Canyon cannot provide the “true age of the Earth.”

Pausing on the rim to gaze at the Canyon’s majestic layers, Tyson shares some flawed and incomplete information before moving on. Answers in Genesis geologist Dr. Andrew Snelling points out:

At the Grand Canyon Tyson chose a sedimentary layer near the top (the rim) to talk about bacteria and algae fossilized in Precambrian layers. But those layers are at the bottom of the Canyon, not near the top! Never mind being accurate. He next chose the Bright Angel Shale and declared it to be 530 million years old, which is based not just on its contained fossils, but on radioisotope dating of volcanic ash beds found in it. Then he showed fossilized vertebrate footprints in the Supai Group, which he declared to be 260 million years old, but did not provide any basis for such absolute age claims. Apart from fossil contents, the absolute ages have been determined by radioisotope dating of suitable rocks in other places to which rocks these Grand Canyon layers have been correlated.

The full sedimentary strata sequence as seen from the top of Deer Creek Falls looking upstream through the Granite Narrows.

The full sedimentary strata sequence as seen from the top of Deer Creek Falls looking upstream through the Granite Narrows. Each sedimentary layer contains evidence it was rapidly deposited under catastrophic conditions. (All images from the Grand Canyon courtesy of Dr. Andrew Snelling.)

The Bass Rapids diabase sill, the thick, dark, slightly sloping rock layer in the center of the view, has been radioactively “dated” using all four major methods on the same samples, and each method gave a different age, ranging from 841 to 1,379 million years.

The Bass Rapids diabase sill, the thick, dark, slightly sloping rock layer in the center of the view, has been radioactively “dated” using all four major methods on the same samples, and each method gave a different age, ranging from 841 to 1,379 million years. See “Radioisotopes in the Diabase Sill (Upper Precambrian) at Bass Rapids, Grand Canyon, Arizona.”

“The Breath of Life”

Biological evolution gets its Cosmos moment at the Grand Canyon. “Back in the Precambrian period about a billion years ago there was only one kind of life,” Tysons says. “These blue-green bacteria were busy harvesting sunlight, making oxygen. For them it was just a waste product, but for the animals that evolved later, including us, it was the breath of life.” Yet the study of living things does not demonstrate a single example of life evolving from simple to more complex forms.

God’s Word records that God made all kinds of living things during Creation Week and designed them to reproduce after their kinds, and that is exactly what biologists observe as they study living things. God made the world ready to be inhabited (Isaiah 45:18; Genesis 1–2). Earth did not have to wait for cyanobacteria to oxygenate it. Man’s “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7) came not from evolving microbes but from the living God.

Ignoring the Big Catastrophe

Though Tyson does not explain the source of the ages he quotes in the Canyon, he correctly reports the rate of sedimentation is much too variable to allow counting layers to determine the “true age of the Earth.” Tallying the layers also fails to sample the original Earth rocks, which Tyson contends disappeared in Earth’s supposed fiery beginning. God told us in the Bible that He created the world initially covered in water (Genesis 1:1–10, 2 Peter 3:5–6), not in fire. But other factors in the actual history of the Earth may well have disrupted Earth’s real original rocks, such as the dynamics involved as God raised up the dry land on the third day of Earth’s existence (Genesis 1:9–10) or the catastrophic break-up of the Earth’s crust (Genesis 7:11) associated with the global Flood about 1,656 years later.

Glossing over another bit of information, Tyson correctly says catastrophes like floods can result in rapid accumulation of sediment. Yet standing there at the Grand Canyon he ignores the historical catastrophe—the global Flood and its aftermath—that was responsible for producing this now beautiful monument.

A Constant Clock

To date the Grand Canyon layers, scientists who reject biblical history rely on index fossils and radiometric measurements performed on volcanic rock intrusions in the Canyon and in rock strata around the world. Tyson shifts our focus from the Grand Canyon to an Arizona crater and a meteorite fragment, but radiometric dating methods are the yardstick by which all are judged. Yet he never mentions that different radiometric dating methods applied to the same rock sample frequently fail to agree with each other!

“Physicists discovered that the atoms of each unstable element decay at a constant rate,” Tyson says. “The nucleus of an atom is a kind of sanctuary immune to the shocks and evils of its environment. Hit it with a hammer, boil it in oil, vaporize it, the nuclear clock goes on ticking keeping an absolute standard of time.” But is this really true? No! Answers in Genesis geologist Dr. Andrew Snelling explains,

The segment designed to establish that radioactive dating is impregnable as the “absolute standard of time” is almost laughable if it wasn’t so serious an attempt to gloss over details. To state that hammering and boiling can’t change the decay rates is hardly “proof” that the nucleus is impregnable and stable, so that radioactive decay rates are absolutely constant. The use of so many cartoon depictions should alert us to the narrator’s sublime efforts to spin his yarns, hand-waving stories at best. After all, he said the stable lead atoms remain “for eternity”! How can he know that?

But the nucleus is not impregnable and stable! After all, what do scientists achieve in atom-smashers, and has he not heard of fission, where uranium atoms split?

Besides, there is impeccable evidence that radioactive decay rates have not been constant in the past, but have been accelerated during a past event (or events)—see the results of the RATE research. Indeed, the different radioactive dating methods should give the same dating results on the same rock samples if the radioactive decay rates of the parent atoms (uranium, potassium, rubidium, samarium) were constant through time at today’s measured decay rates. However, in the RATE research, it was documented that the same rock samples dated by the different methods invariably gave different dates. They did so in a systematic pattern that indicated a systematic process had been responsible for changing the decay rates in the past. For example, the Cardenas Basalt in the Grand Canyon yielded a K-Ar age of 516 million years, a Rb-Sr age of 1111 million years, and an Sm-Nd age of 1588 million years.

Cardenas Basalt

The Cardenas Basalt in the eastern Grand Canyon, consisting of at least six thick lava flows, has been radioactively “dated” by three major methods using the same samples, and ages range from 516 million years (K-Ar) to 1588 million years (Sm-Nd). See Discordant Potassium-Argon Model and Isochron “Ages” for Cardenas Basalt (Middle Proterozoic) and Associated Diabase of Eastern Grand Canyon, Arizona.

Therefore, the assumption of constant decay rates, which is so crucial for the radioactive dating methods to work, is rendered highly questionable at best, and likely totally invalidated. Besides, no scientists were there in the unobservable past to measure the decay rates to show they were the same as measured today.

Meteorites—“A Gift from the Heavens”

Because those scientists who reject God’s eyewitness account of history need a naturalistic way to explain the origin of the solar system, they propose that after our sun was born, “dust snowballed into progressively larger objects, but once these objects grew massive enough to have sufficient gravity they began pulling each other into crossing orbits,” resulting in many fiery collisions and producing debris that settled into the place between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars.

Tyson says, “No part of the Earth’s surface could survive intact from that time to the present. So with all its birth and early childhood records erased, how could we ever hope to know with any certainty the true age of our world? . . . Are there any mementos from when the Earth was born? Objects that could possibly tell us its true age? I know a place where the unused bricks and mortar left over from the creation of our solar system can be found. It lies between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Here is the stuff of the newborn Earth, adrift in cold-storage, unchanged ever since that time.” From that reservoir, he continues, “A million or so years ago, a large asteroid happened to jostle a much smaller one, sending it on a new trajectory, a collision course that ended one night some 50,000 years ago [in Arizona]. . . . Fragments of the iron asteroid that made this crater have survived intact. If we just knew how long ago that iron was forged we‘d know the age of the solar system including the Earth.”

Thus, to learn the “true age of the Earth” Claire Patterson used meteorite fragments. The tricky part about dating this meteorite, however, was that very little uranium and lead were present. To calibrate on such a scale, Claire Patterson spent years working out how to measure similarly miniscule amounts in zircon crystals, which are embedded in other rock. Cosmos declares them to be impervious—“nothing gets in or out of them”—and that they are embedded in rocks of “known age,” though how they were dated is not stated.

The amounts were so small that the amount of lead in the environment, from natural and manmade sources, contaminated the samples, thus frustrating efforts to date the zircons. Therefore, Patterson had to invent an ultraclean environment in which to handle the specimens. Commenting on the saga, Dr. Andrew Snelling says,

The story of Claire Patterson’s quest to measure trace amounts of lead in meteorites illustrates the role of contamination in rendering the radioactive dating methods unreliable. He had to build an ultra-clean lab to achieve his goal, and he subsequently demonstrated lead contamination is rife in the environment. So much for assuming the meteorites and the rocks have been uncontaminated throughout the billions of years!

Radiometric dates, to be reliable, require certain knowledge of the amounts of the elements (like uranium and lead) in the rock when it was originally formed, certain knowledge that the “nuclear clock” had always ticked at the same rate, and certain knowledge that there had never been any contamination of the elements in question or any loss of those elements through other means. Not only are these not certainties, there is strong evidence that the dating assumptions of the evolutionists are simply not true.

Beyond such method-related problems, dating the iron meteorite fragment—which presumably remained uncontaminated as it traveled though space for billions of years, traversed Earth’s atmosphere, exploded into our crust, lay in northern Arizona for 50,000 more years, and then got handled by people—requires additional unverifiable assumptions.1 How do scientists know with certainty that the meteorite that made northern Arizona’s Barringer Crater formed when Earth formed? How do they know with certainty the amount of lead originally in the meteorite? How do they know with certainty that the lead in the meteorite is, as Tyson claims, “exactly the same as when the Earth formed”? No scientist was there to observe and measure any of these things. The scientific method requires repeatable verifiable observations. This much-touted “true age of the Earth” is based on none.

Real Zircons

Zircon crystals according to the Cosmos narrator are sealed systems, reliable ways to calibrate their dating method because they must match the “known age” of the rocks in which they are found. Yet zircons have provided some of the best evidence to topple the vast ages secular scientists claim for their host rocks.

First of all, radiation trapped inside zircon crystals can disrupt their crystalline structure. Furthermore, radioactive decay of uranium produces helium, and helium atoms fit between the atoms in zircon crystals and leak out. Yet zircon crystals contain much more helium than they should, if they are really billions of years old. Study of zircon crystals has produced a great deal of information completely consistent with—and only explainable by—a biblically young age for the Earth.

Nebulous Beginnings

This entire search for “truth” is predicated on the “nebular hypothesis”—a story for our solar system’s origins that not only violates God’s version of history but also the laws of physics. Answers in Genesis astronomer Dr. Danny Faulkner explains,

This episode assumes that the current theory of the formation of the solar system is correct. There are many problems with this theory. There is no agreed upon mechanism of how the tiny pieces of material began to stick together so that they eventually formed planetesimals. Planetesimals supposedly grew into planets, so the amalgamation of these tiny particles is the first step in forming planets. But without this step, there can be no planets. Also, angular momentum is not uniformly distributed in the solar system—the planets have almost all of it, but have very little of the mass.

Astronomers generally think that this theory is correct, because they need the solar system to form naturally somehow. So they assume that they just don't understand yet how some of these things happened.

I call this “evolution of the gaps.”

Unchanging Truth

Truth does not change according to who believes it. Our Creator God has provided us with truth about our temporal and physical origins in His Word. And that history is consistent with what we observe scientifically.

Our Creator has also provided us with the truth about our spiritual nature—made in the image of God but rebellious sinners ever since our first parents sinned. Death has haunted our world since Adam and Eve brought sin into it, but Jesus Christ defeated even death.

God has provided us with the true solution to our corrupt natures and our otherwise catastrophic destinies through the coming of His Son Jesus Christ into the world. Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead, and therefore we can be reconciled to God, if we repent of our sin and trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. In Jesus Christ reside “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). As Bible-believing Christians we know that if we can trust Jesus Christ with our eternal destinies, we can trust His Word to provide us with the “true age of the Earth.”

For more information:


  1. Though Tyson indicates the “true age of the Earth” came from a single fragment, Patterson actually derived his date from three stony and two iron meteorites. The problems with the assumptions about one are equally problematic for the lot. Answers in Genesis geologist Dr. Andrew Snelling observes, Tyson “did briefly show the isochron Patterson used to date the age of the Earth, and any astute person watching the program would have seen ‘stoney (sic) meteorites’ plotted on the same isochron line drawn through the meteorite data. In fact, in his 1956 scientific paper, Patterson reported lead (Pb) isotope analyses of three stony and two iron meteorites, so the Canyon Diablo meteorite was only one data point he used to obtain the claimed age of the Earth. So the amount of lead in that meteorite did NOT provide the ‘Earth’s true age’ as Tyson claims. Patterson plotted these results on a Pb-Pb isochron diagram, and the age obtained from the isochron passing through these data points was 4.55 ± 0.07 Ga. Patterson also found that the lead isotope analysis of a modern ocean sediment sample plotted on the same isochron. See “Radioisotope Dating of Meteorites: I. The Allende CV3 Carbonaceous Chrondrite.”}


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Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. We focus on providing answers to questions about the Bible—particularly the book of Genesis—regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.