Scientist Scale Back Age Estimates of Celestial Bodies

by Stephen Caesar

Scientist Scale Back Age

In a previous column, I reported on a discovery by astronomers that a certain pulsar was much younger than scientists had originally estimated. The discovery was based on Chinese astronomical records that confirmed the youth of the object, while the original, older date was based on false assumptions.

Now it has happened again, this time with the so-called Veil Nebula. The January, 2001, issue of Discover reported that images taken by the Hubble Telescope have led astronomers to reduce the age of this formation: "Astronomers believed the Veil, one of the best-studied supernova remnants, was 2,500 light-years away and 18,000 years old. But when astrophysicist William Blair of Johns Hopkins University and his colleagues compared this new [Hubble] image with ground-based photos taken in 1953, they found the consensus was quite wrong. In fact, the Veil nebula is a mere 1,500 light-years away and 5,000 years old. Blair is taken aback: This had been considered the prototypical supernova remnant, and we thought it was well understood'" (Svitil 2001: 18 [emphasis added]).

Another example of this acknowledged reduction in the age of celestial bodies involves dating closely-packed groups of stars called globular clusters. Brian Chaboyer, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth, wrote an article in a recent issue of Scientific American on this subject. In it, he describes a complication in conventional methods for dating these clusters:

"Theoretical models are approximations of what really goes on inside a star. For several years now, studies of the sun have revealed those limitations. Solar sound waves, for example, indicate that helium is slowly sinking toward the center of the sun.The helium displaces hydrogen, reducing the amount of fuel that the sun has at its disposal and therefore its life expectancy. My colleagues and I have also refined the modeling of other processes such as convection and have improved the description of how the gas responds to changes in pressure and temperature. The net effect has been to reduce the estimated globular ages by 14 percent" (Chaboyer 2001: 49, 52).

There are other problems, as Dr. Chaboyer noted: "The observed brightness of a star depends on its distance as well as its intrinsic luminosity. But measuring distances is one of the most difficult tasks in astronomy.The errors (in measuring techniques) worsen systematically with distance: telescopes working at the limit of their resolution tend to overstate small parallaxes* and thus understate distance" (Chaboyer 2001: 52).

To correct this, the European Space Agency in 1989 launched the Hipparcos satellite, which can measure the distance of stars from the earth with greater accuracy than ever before, including stars ten times farther away from the earth than earlier instruments could measure (Chaboyer 2001: 52-53). Prof. Chaboyer reported, "The result has been surprising: globular clusters are about 10 percent farther away than previously thought. That makes them intrinsically more luminous and therefore younger" (Chaboyer 2001: 53).

What is interesting to note is that the more advanced scientists' dating methods become, the younger they discover the stars to be, and not the other way around. In other words, improved scientific technology has proven to be the friend of young-universe Creationists, not the enemy. Critics of the Bible have always believed the exact opposite-that the more advanced science becomes, the more it will be able to disprove the claims of the Bible.

Stephen Caesar has just completed his master's thesis in anthropology/archaeology at Harvard. He is the author of the e-book The Bible Encounters Modern Science, available at


Chaboyer, B. C. (2001). "Rip Van Twinkle." Scientific American, vol. 284, no. 5.

Svitil, K. A. (2001). "Dream Weaver." Discover, vol. 22, no. 1.

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