More In This Article
Editor’s note: The following is the introduction to a special e-publication called Determining the Age of the Earth (click the link to see a table of contents). Published earlier this year, the collection draws articles from the archives of Scientific American. In the collection, this introduction appears with the title, “Stumbling Toward an Understanding of Geologic Timescales.”
Aristotle thought the earth had existed eternally. Roman poet Lucretius, intellectual heir to the Greek atomists, believed its formation must have been relatively recent, given that there were no records going back beyond the Trojan War. The Talmudic rabbis, Martin Luther and others used the biblical account to extrapolate back from known history and came up with rather similar estimates for when the earth came into being. The most famous came in 1654, when Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland offered the date of 4004 B.C.
Within decades observation began overtaking such thinking. In the 1660s Nicolas Steno formulated our modern concepts of deposition of horizontal strata. He inferred that where the layers are not horizontal, they must have been tilted since their deposition and noted that different strata contain different kinds of fossil. Robert Hooke, not long after, suggested that the fossil record would form the basis for a chronology that would “far antedate ... even the very pyramids.” The 18th century saw the spread of canal building, which led to the discovery of strata correlated over great distances, and James Hutton’s recognition that unconformities between successive layers implied that deposition had been interrupted by enormously long periods of tilt and erosion. By 1788 Hutton had formulated a theory of cyclic deposition and uplift, with the earth indefinitely old, showing “no vestige of a beginning—no prospect of an end.” Hutton considered the present to be the key to the past, with geologic processes driven by the same forces as those we can see at work today. This position came to be known as uniformitarianism, but within it we must distinguish between uniformity of natural law (which nearly all of us would accept) and the increasingly questionable assumptions of uniformity of process, uniformity of rate and uniformity of outcome.
That is the background to the intellectual drama being played out in this series of papers. It is a drama consisting of a prologue and three acts, complex characters, and no clear heroes or villains. We, of course, know the final outcome, but we should not let that influence our appreciation of the story as it unfolds. Even less should we let that knowledge influence our judgment of the players, acting as they did in their own time, constrained by the concepts and data then available.
One outstanding feature of this drama is the role played by those who themselves were not, or not exclusively, geologists. Most notable is William Thomson, ennobled to become Lord Kelvin in 1892, whose theories make up an entire section of this collection. He was one of the dominant physicists of his time, the Age of Steam. His achievements ran from helping formulate the laws of thermodynamics to advising on the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Harlow Shapley, who wrote an article in 1919 on the subject, was an astronomer, responsible for the detection of the redshift in distant nebulae and hence, indirectly, for our present concept of an expanding universe. Florian Cajori, author of the 1908 article “The Age of the Sun and the Earth,” was a historian of science and, especially, of mathematics, and Ray Lankester, whom he quotes, was a zoologist. H. N. Russell, author of the 1921 article on radioactive dating, was familiar to me for his part in developing the Hetzsprung-Russell diagram for stars, but I was surprised to discover that he was also the Russell of Russell-Saunders coupling, important in atomic structure theory. H. S. Shelton was a philosopher of science, critical (as shown in his contribution, the 1915 article “Sea-Salt and Geologic Time”) of loose thinking and a defender of evolution in debates.
The prologue to the drama is the mid-19th century recognition of the relation between heat and other kinds of energy (see the 1857 article “Source of the Sun’s Heat”). The first act consists in a direct attack, led by Lord Kelvin, on the extreme uniformitarianism of those such as Charles Lyell, who regarded the earth as indefinitely old and who, with great foresight (or great naivety, depending on your point of view: see the third installment of the 1900 “The Age of the Earth” article by W. J. Sollas), assumed that physical processes would eventually be discovered to power the great engine of erosion and uplift.
The second act of the drama sees a prolonged attempt by a new generation of geologists to estimate the age of the earth from observational evidence, to come up with an answer that would satisfy the demands of newly dominant evolutionary thinking, and to reconcile this answer with the constraints imposed by thermodynamics. The third act sees the entry of a newly discovered set of physical laws—those governing radioactivity. Radioactivity offered not only a resolution to the puzzle of the earth’s energy supply but also a chronology independent of questionable geologic assumptions and a depth of time more than adequate for the processes of evolution.