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Is the Park Service Billion-Phobic?


    Last week's furor over the geologic age of the Grand Canyon and what park rangers supposedly can and can't say, along with putting trillions of electrons to work in the blogosphere and wasting quite a bit of time for an awful lot of people, also revealed that the National Park Service seems to be billion-phobic.
    Yep, the agency struggles with the "b" word. At least when it comes to Grand Canyon National Park's web pages addressing the age of that big hole in the ground.
    Skip over to the site's page of frequently asked questions and you'll see the following answer to the question of "How Old is the Canyon":
    That's a tricky question. Although rocks exposed in the walls of the canyon are geologically quite old, the canyon itself is a fairly young feature. The oldest rocks at the canyon bottom are close to 2000 million years old. The canyon itself -- an erosional feature -- has formed only in the past five or six million years. Geologically speaking, Grand Canyon is very young.

    And in addressing the ages of the rocks exposed in the canyon the park says this:
    Although the oldest rocks at Grand Canyon (2000 million years old) are fairly old by any standard, the oldest rocks in the world are closer to 4000 million years old.

    2000 million? 4000 million? Whatever happened to 2 billion and 4 billion? 

    I was so piqued by the missing "b" word that I contacted the folks at the Grand Canyon. The answer, according to park spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge, is that most visitors are more comfortable dealing with millions of years, even if it's thousands of million, than with the concept of a billion years.
    "A lot of the staff giving (interpretive) programs finds visitors have problems jumping from millions to billions," she told me. "These people deal with providing programs every day. This is the decision that they made to communicate with visitors."
    Now, that answer might not sit well with everyone, myself included, as I'm much more comfortable in describing the geologic age of the Grand Canyon as around 2 billion years rather than 2000 million. And if you closely read the comments to my God, Geology and the Grand Canyon post, you know the park's use of 2000 million when enumerating the canyon's age did rile some viewers, largely conspiracy theorists who figured that the unusual math was intended by the NPS to dance a jig around science when it comes to the age of the canyon.

    Millions and billions aside, if you want to see one of the best geologic time-lines for the Grand Canyon, skip over to this page at Chris Clarke's  Creek  Running North blog.


I wondered where I had seen the term "thousands of millions of years" and broke out "The Sculpturing of Zion" by geologist Wayne Hamilton, Ph.D. Appendix A: Time Scale for the Earth labels its axis "Thousands of millions (billions) of years ago". Then I did a search at Yahoo! for geology + "thousands of millions of years" and got hundreds of geology sites that use the term. I'm sure I've seen this in geology training, too. Thousands of millions. Billions. It's still a boatload (dare I say "arkload"?) of years and a lot more than 4000 or 6000.

Saying "2000 million years" makes it easier for people to compare with the 4 to 6 million year age of the canyon. Lots of people don't know how many millions a billion is.

Well I appreciate your call to the NPS. It is now even more clear that the website is catering to the religious right. I just wonder why you were so quick to defend them in your original posts. It is a well-known tactic of creationists to frame scientific data into a format which they can digest, regardless of whether they are correct in doing so. I understand that they are attempting to cater to "America" as a whole, but, in doing so, the NPS website has failed to follow the established directives... "The interpretive and educational treatment used to explain the natural processes and history of the Earth MUST be based on the best scientific evidence available, as found in scholarly sources that have stood the test of scientific peer review and criticism." I rest my case.

Ranger X, How do you expect to win the war against naive Christian thinking if you don't even give them the facts. The grand canyon is a wonderful example of how god does not exist, try not to spoil it with creationist rhetoric. And those people who "don't know how many millions a billion is" also have no idea how much a million is. So why even use numbers at all. Why not just say the canyon is as old as the earth, (using your logic) and that god created it when he took his first wee-wee.

The cosmologist, Stephen Hawking in his book A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME routinely uses thousands of millions of years to describe ages and events within the history of the universe. Stating the age of the canyon in this way is not out of the ordinary. The manner in which Grand Canyon National Park states the age of the canyon on it's FAQ page is a non-issue that does not concern Creationism and the religious right. Don't make a big deal of it.

"The grand canyon is a wonderful example of how god does not exist, try not to spoil it with creationist rhetoric." I'll ignore your comma splice and focus instead on your juvenile attitude and silly assertions. First, why are you so angry? Really? And using war as a metaphor to describe the difference between scientific and religious thought? Tsk tsk. Where, specifically, in my post do you find "creationist rhetoric"? Finally, you are a fundamentalist just like those to whom you are diametrically opposed; god's existence, or lack thereof, cannot be proven. Both sides claim to have the "truth" and are intolerant of other views. In short, you are just like the creationists.

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