Celebrating the age of the Earth
Published:January 01, 2001
The age of the Earth has been a subject of intellectual interest for many centuries, even millennia. Of the early estimates, Archbishop Ussher’s famous calculation of 4004 bc for the date of Creation represents one of the shortest time periods ever assigned to the Earth’s age, but by the seventeenth century many naturalists were sceptical of such chronologies. In the eighteenth century it was Nature that provided the record for Hutton and others.
But not all observers of geology enquired about time. Many, like William Smith, simply earned a living from their practical knowledge of it, although his nephew, John Phillips, was one of the first geologists to attempt a numerical age for the Earth from the depositional rates of sediments. For more than fifty years variations of that method prevailed as geology’s main tool for dating the Earth, while the physicists constrained requirements for a long timescale with ever more rigorous, and declining, estimates of a cooling Sun and Earth.
In 1896 the advent of radioactivity provided the means by which the Earth’s age would at last be accurately documented, although it took another sixty years. Since that time ever more sophisticated chronological techniques have contributed to a search for the oldest rocks, the start of life, and human evolution. In the attempt to identify those landmarks, and others, we have greatly progressed our understanding about the processes that shape our planet and the Universe, although in doing so we discover that the now-accepted age of the Earth is but a ‘geochemical accident’ which remains a contentious issue.
Figures & Tables
The Age of the Earth: From 4004 BC to AD 2002
The age of the Earth has long been a subject of great interest to scientists from many disciplines, particularly geologists, biologists, physicists and astronomers. This volume, The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002, brings together contributors from these different subjects, along with historians, to produce a comprehensive review of how the Earth’s age has been perceived since ancient times. Touching on the works of eminent scholars from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, it describes how concepts of the Earth’s history changed as geology slowly separated itself from religious orthodoxy to emerge as a rigorous and self-contained science. Fossils soon became established as useful markers of relative age, while deductions made from geomorphological processes enabled the discussion of time in terms of years. By the end of the nineteenth century biologists and geologists were fiercely debating the issue with physicists who were unwilling to give them the time needed for evolution or uniformitarianism.
With the discovery of radioactivity, attempts to calculate the Earth’s age entered a new era, although these early pioneers in radiometric dating encountered many difficulties, both technical and intellectual, before the enormity of geological time was fully recognized. This effort affected both the theory and practice of geology. Geochronology was largely responsible for it maturing into a professional scientific discipline, as increasingly refined techniques measured not only the age of the rocks, but the rate of processes which now elucidate many aspects of the Earth’s evolution.
Even today the Earth’s chronology remains a contentious topic — particularly for those dating the oldest rocks — and it is implicated in debates surrounding our hominid ancestors, the origins and development of life, and the age of the universe.
The Age of the Earth: from 4004 bc to AD 2002 will be of particular interest to geologists, geochemists, and historians of science, as well as astronomers, archaeologists, biologists and the general reader with an interest in science.