The age of the Earth in the United States (1891–1931): from the geological viewpoint
Published:January 01, 2001
Ellis L. Yochelson, Cherry L. E. Lewis, 2001. "The age of the Earth in the United States (1891–1931): from the geological viewpoint", The Age of the Earth: From 4004 BC to AD 2002, C. L. E. Lewis, S. J. Knell
Download citation file:
In North America, prior to the Second World War, discussions on the age of the Earth were a minuscule part of the geological literature, as demonstrated by the small number of papers indexed to the subject in bibliographies. Indeed, during the first quarter of the twentieth century, there were few general papers on this topic circulating among those geologists who dealt with sedimentary rocks and fossils; nevertheless, evidence is provided that many geologists were aware of the ‘debate’ going on in Britain.
As the methodology for determining the length of geological time dramatically changed during the four decades represented here, so too did the evolution of ideas about the age of the Earth. These can conveniently be divided into three time periods: before, during and after the discovery that radioactivity could be applied to the dating of rocks. The first section reviews the attitudes of geologists in America to the age of the Earth in the 1890s. It is followed by their reactions to the discovery of radioactivity. The third part discusses two major publications on the age of the Earth which reflect the ultimate acceptance, by geologists, of the long timescale revealed by radioactivity. Because much of the early work on radioactivity was being done in Europe, American geologists were marginally later than their British counterparts in accepting the concept of radiometric dating, but by the end of the period under consideration they led the field in geochronology.
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.