The Age of the Earth—An Age-Old Question [Excerpt]

Lord Kelvin applied thermodynamics to the problem of Earth’s age. Although his estimates are now known to be incorrect by several orders of magnitude, they shook up the established theories of 19th-century geologists

Throughout the 19th century, unaware of this approaching crisis, geologists worked away at establishing our familiar geological column. They worked out the order of the strata from which lay on top of which others, and later from the complexity of the fossils they contained, and made estimates of the duration of each geological period from the thicknesses of its best preserved sediments. Not realising that they had only a very incomplete part of the total depositional record, they came up with an estimated age of around 100 million years upwards, in tolerable agreement with Kelvin.

The age of the Sun presented a much more serious problem. We know how large the Sun is, how far away, and how much solar energy reaches us. From this, it is relatively straightforward to calculate its total energy output. Where is this energy coming from? Not from any chemical process, for no chemical process is energetic enough. So Kelvin, building on suggestions by Helmholtz and others, suggested that  a more  useful source might be the gravitational energy released during the Sun’s formation. Knowing the total mass of the Sun, and using Newton’s Laws of gravitational attraction, Kelvin could work out how much energy must have been given out by this process. This would first be converted into the kinetic energy of the infalling matter, and that kinetic energy would then by well-known physical processes be converted to heat and ultimately to light, all in strict obedience to the laws of thermodynamics. Divide the amount of energy available by the rate of output, and you get an upper probable limit of 100 million years for the Sun’s total productive life. This is also, by implication, an upper limit to the age of the Earth as we know it. "As for the future, we may say, with equal certainty, that inhabitants of the Earth can not continue to enjoy the light and heat essential to their life for many million years longer unless sources now unknown to us are prepared in the great storehouse of creation." Kelvin wrote these words in 1862, and published them in a popular journal (Macmillan’s Magazine).

In subsequent refinements of this calculation, he would add  further arguments, based for example on tidal friction and the dynamics of the Earth–Moon system, and in the light of fresh information about the thermal properties of rocks lower the range to some 20–40 million years, "and probably much nearer 20 than 40."

The impact was sensational. For by this time, as Kelvin well knew, a great deal was at stake. Darwin’s Origin of Species had appeared just three years before the Macmillan’s Magazine article. This had revolutionised our perspective on the world. It stated for the first time with complete clarity the modern view that species were not separately created but had evolved from simpler common ancestors by the operation of natural selection on the variations between individuals. The origin of these variations (what we now call mutations) was completely unknown, but it was clear that descent from a common ancestor must have been an extremely slow process, requiring what Darwin himself had described as "incomprehensibly vast… periods of time", with 20 to 40 million years much too little for all this to have occurred by natural selection. Nor did it help when Kelvin revised his 100 million year estimate of the age of the Earth sharply downwards, in the light of new evidence about the melting points of rocks. Indeed, Charles Darwin referred to Kelvin as an "odious spectre" and among his sorest troubles, and his son George was among the geologists most concerned with trying to find flaws in Kelvin’s reasoning.

Reprinted from From Stars to Stalagmites: How Everything Connects, by Paul S. Braterman, with permission from World Scientific Publishing (U.K.), Ltd. Copyright © Paul S. Braterman, 2012.

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1. 1. candide 12:40 PM 1/25/13

Funny that Damascus, a very important city for the Abrahamic religions, is itself about 9-10 thousand years old.

2. 2. julianpenrod 01:24 PM 1/25/13

lamorpa can try to mock religion all they want, but, among other thigs, a created earth is an absooute expression of the very same non uniformitarianism for which Kelvin is being praised! And, frankly, there is nowhere in Christianity that it is officially declared that the earth must be flat. Also, note, Kelvin warned against uniformitarianism, yet invoked the idea of heat increase, the behavior of rock under pressure and heat transfer under extreme conditions to where they are likely not applicable. To say nothing of invoking the same laws and operation of those laws far, far back in time.

3. 3. SteveinOG in reply to julianpenrod 02:01 PM 1/25/13

That's right. Uniformitariansism is exactly the same as non-Uniformitariansism. Isn't it miraculous how double-talk makes willfull ignorance seem profound?

4. 4. SteveinOG 02:03 PM 1/25/13

Uniformitarianism, that is.

5. 5. way2ec 03:21 PM 1/25/13

Darwin got it right, incomprehensibly vast periods of time. Millions or billions, it becomes a numbers game as far as human comprehension is concerned. Not that we shouldn't apply all manner of ways of calculating the correct numbers... but for creationists the difference between 6 thousand and 6 million is as irrelevant as the "fact" that the story in Genesis doesn't have the Earth rotating on the first "day", thus the first "day" (and night) wouldn't have been 24 hours. And since all this is irrelevant to creationists, there goes radiocarbon dating and all the rest of the timelines of science. Those of us following the articles here in SciAm about the "war" on science have to then "pretend" that we truly "comprehend" what the difference between millions and billions of years actually means, back to Darwin's incomprehensibly long periods of time. Too bad that creationists can't be as honest and admit that their god and his "plan" are also incomprehensible, it would give us all a starting point, maybe the Big Bang, as in God said "Let there be Light" and we could all agree that it was a long long time ago, an incomprehensibly long time ago, under incomprehensible conditions. Is it really any different at the other "end", the difference between an expanding universe, expanding "into" nothingness, trying to imagine being on that expanding boundary, moving "outward" in all "directions" for the last 13+ billion years, 13+ billion light years, or imagining an infinite universe, or an infinity of universes? At that point I imagine God being like the grin of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. I'm sure "HE" has a sense of humor.

6. 6. greenhome123 04:22 PM 1/25/13

This article made me think about geothermal energy. But, in regards to the age of the earth, I would put my money on several billions years rather than millions, and I don't understand how people can seriously entertain the idea of 6,00 year old earth, considering all of the dating methods and ice cores and so on showing it is a lot older. I guess it is people's strong desire to go to heaven and fear of burning in hell that makes them believe such nonsense.

7. 7. Acoyauh2 in reply to way2ec 04:26 PM 1/25/13

Ahem. SHE does, just look at her followers =P

8. 8. HubertB 04:40 PM 1/25/13

I am curious if Kelvin gave any consideration was given to the heat given off when molten rock changed from liquid to solid state. I guess he assumed the entire ball did not start cooling in the molten state before the outside began solidifying. Still, he made a brilliant assumption.

9. 9. Wayne Williamson 05:38 PM 1/25/13

So he was off on some calculations...at least he was trying and did enough that he is still remembered today...
Myself, I like the Kelvin scale(temp)...

10. 10. M Tucker 06:57 PM 1/25/13

I would love to know what estimate Kelvin used for the thickness of the crust. He had no seismic evidence to use to describe the boundary between the crust and the mantle.

11. 11. Greg Angelo 07:31 PM 1/25/13

Kelvin's analysis was based on the application of first principles evaluation based on known and verifiable physical assumptions within the limits of knowledge at the time.

It is pointless criticizing late Bronze Age desert dwellers for their assumptions concerning their world view based on their limited understanding of the principles of physics at the time, but you can be critical of the current day creationist adherents who have not moved beyond Bronze Age thinking in their analytical capabilities.

Kelvin's analysis of the age of the Earth was based logical extrapolation of known variables, but at that stage nobody had any idea of the energy derived from fusion in the sun or the energy released from radioactive decay of heavy elements at the core of the earth which as I understand it provides the energy source which keeps the core of the earth molten.

Darwin's observations led him to an assumption that the earth was older than 100 million years based on the principles of geology in which he was somewhat of an expert. Of course whilst he had some basis for assuming the earth was older he had no evidence or information which would explain why the core was still molten over his assumed longer period.

Kelvin's great contribution was pushing back the barriers of ignorance by several orders of magnitude from 6000 years to at least 100 million years, in support of the geologists of the day who were pushing even further. Without people like Kelvin and Darwin we would still be goat herders paying reverence to burning bushes.

12. 12. Steven 11:42 PM 1/25/13

Not understanding nuclear energy, it not having been understood until about 50 years later, he missed by a factor of a couple orders of magnitude.
If he had known about nuclear energy, he would of been right on.
Actually it's a pretty good idea, and should work out about right if nuclear energy, which heats the core of the earth, can be factored in.

13. 13. johnog 02:07 AM 1/26/13

Egads! What has all the commentary (That I have read, before I chose to post) to do with the scientific evolution/progress? that the article alludes to? We now uderstand that gravitationally induced heat fires the fusion that powers the sun, and that radioactive decay is the reason the earth hasn't cooled to an ice cube. I'm a '66 "B.S. Physics", but I am willing to acknowledge that I no longer can master the math that allowed me to get that degree. I got into mainframe software development so PC's behavior still mystifies.

14. 14. johnog in reply to julianpenrod 02:25 AM 1/26/13

So, you insist that parthogenesis can result in a MALE offspring, despite your expressed doubts about "whatever". How did anybody regularly reading SciAm ever think that the "Bible, Torah, Qu'ran" or any other so-called "sacred-text" had any direct factual proof of an "Entity" that had planned everything for the universe, but was, nevertheless, going to take personal interest in the behavior of a "naked ape" living on the third planet from a nondescript star in a common, albeit larger than average, spiral galaxy. Face it folks, we only exist as an apparent violation of the 2nd law because of the energy coming from the "Sun"; which, incidentally, is scheduled to broil our world some Billenia in the future.

15. 15. slayerwulfe 01:46 PM 1/26/13

i read the first page & then i read the comments, not impressed. the age of a body, planetary or other is inconsequential compared to the age of the material that constitutes the body. of what importance is the coalescence of matter ? not relevant unless it's in big chunks ? the atoms that form our bodies R no different than the one's that form this planet or anything.
slayerwulfe cave

16. 16. Technopoly 11:41 AM 1/27/13

We humans impose our time measurements on the universe by the rotation of our planet and its elliptical course around our sun ( the true giver of life ).Seconds, minutes,hours,days,years,centuries,millenia. Who do we think we are, in the vastness of billions of galaxies, to say that our measurements rule the universe.

17. 17. Steve D 08:36 PM 1/27/13

Kelvin's assumptions were completely wrong (the earth melted not from its original formation but the proto-earth-proto-moon collision), and the geologists were right. It isn't often you get to stick it to physics.

In my undergrad quantum mechanics class we were given the sun's energy output, the mass of hydrogen and helium atoms, the mass of the sun, and E=mc squared, and told to estimate how long the sun could shine. I got billions of years, and then realized that I had solved one of the biggest problems of 19th century physics on half a sheet of paper. It was a profound lesson in what you could do with simple facts put together correctly.

18. 18. Dr. Strangelove in reply to Steve D 09:27 PM 1/27/13

Einstein published special theory of relativity in 1905. Kelvin's calculation was done in 1862. He could not have known E = mc^2

But Kelvin refused to believe in radioactivity and X-ray even after their discoveries. By 1900 Kelvin was seen by young generation of scientists as an "old guard and anti-revolutionary."

19. 19. M Tucker 03:36 PM 1/28/13

Hindsight is always 20/20 but the actual history of how improvements in science improve our understanding is always much more interesting than opinion or assumption of how events must have worked out.

Lord Kelvin’s estimate was not the only scientific opinion about the age of the Earth at the time but it was his estimate for the age of the sun that presented the biggest stumbling block for how long life had a chance to evolve on Earth. Fusion was not well understood until the 1930’s and radiometric dating of rock samples had to also go through a process of improvements in understanding of decay series, correct half-life calculations, and a correct estimate for the abundance of the isotopes in question; among other considerations. It was Arthur Holmes who persisted in developing the use of radiometric decay to determine the age of the Earth and his efforts began to give scientifically credible results by the late 1920’s through the 1930’s. The currently accepted age for the Earth was nailed down by CC Patterson in the 1950’s. And it was Patterson’s work with lead in the environment that eventually brought about the removal of lead from gasoline.

20. 20. gnagy 03:57 PM 1/28/13

There is a systemic problem especially in archaeology and paleontology.

On December 9, 2010 in The New York Times science writer Nicolas Wade wrote: "Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word ‘science’ from a statement of its long-range plan."

On her July 2010 radio show (WOR 710AM in New York) national talk-host Joan Hamburg spoke about her early career as a paleontologist and confessed “When we dig up something we don’t really know anything. We just make it up.”

Read pro-evolutionist Bill Bryson's best seller "A Short History of Nearly Everything" and discover on almost every other page the charlatanism, chicanery, lies, outright fraud—even murder—rampant in the sciences——even murder in paleontology and archaeology.
READ HIS BOOK AND FIND OUT FOR YOURSELF.

The American Museum of Natural History has a life-sized African diorama with a hairy male and female ape-like homonids walking upright—based on the finding of a set of footprints!

When Bryson asked the curator of the museum and paleoanthropologist, Ian Tattersall, if “he was troubled about the amount of artistic license that was taken in reconstructing the figures, Tattersall replied, “It’s always a problem in making recreations. You wouldn’t believe how much discussion can go into deciding details like whether Neanderthals had eyebrows or not…We simply can’t know the details of what they looked like… If I had to do it again, I think I might have made them slightly more apelike and less human. ”

He also wrote “If you correlate [fossil] tool discovery with the species of creature most found nearby, you would have to conclude that early hand tools were mostly made by antelopes…”

The biography, “Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit,” by Dr. David Traill, a classics professor at the University of California, shows that Heinrich Schliemann, excavator of the sites of Troy and Mycenae, was an unscrupulous, deceitful and repeatedly guilty of falsifying his excavation reports concluding that the famous archaeologist was a pathological liar.

This is chicanery not science.
This is weird imagination run wild.
This is absolute fraud.

Talk about honesty in the "sciences."

This is pure bunk.

21. 21. veronica_tg 05:15 PM 1/28/13

@ julianpenrod Indeed your nonsense has no business being here. As a matter of fact you should not be using a computer or even driving a car. Go live in a cave where you belong, or better yet go find this Garden of Eden and live there.

22. 22. Carlyle in reply to gnagy 07:41 AM 1/29/13

Great post. You might have added climate science. Regardless of the field, critical examination, scepticism, is imperative for science to draw ever closer to truth & deeper understanding.

23. 23. lucaspa in reply to M Tucker 09:14 AM 1/29/13

"Lord Kelvin’s estimate was not the only scientific opinion about the age of the Earth at the time but it was his estimate for the age of the sun that presented the biggest stumbling block for how long life had a chance to evolve on Earth. "

I think that is something that is being overlooked: a physicist was trying to tell geologists how old the earth was. This is a theme in the history of science: physicists think that they have some priority and can, due to their status as physicists, dictate conclusions in other areas of science. Linus Pauling and the vitamin C fiasco is another prime example. Kelvin did not give the data and methods of geologists their proper due.

24. 24. Padgie 03:26 AM 1/31/13

The ways of science, start with a best guess and then refine [some times a lot]from that point on. Eventually you decide we have got it right. The 6 thousand y.o folks have not had to revise the number they have.

25. 25. Jan Jitso 07:22 AM 1/31/13

Presently age measurements are done p.e. on radio-active inclusions of old zircon crystals. Vasily Yanchilin argues in his book The Quantum Theory of Gravitation that radio-activity was less in the past due to smaller nuclei of atoms. (Then stable transuranium elements existed). The russian scientist gives methods to compute how much the change was and will be in future, due to the expansion of the universe. So correction of the age of old deposits should be started.

26. 26. dave1207 08:21 PM 2/4/13

@ M. TUCKER:

"Early measurements of maximum thickness of sediment ranged from 25,000 m to 112,000 m. With more recent mapping, thickness of fossiliferous rocks is at least 150,000 m. The average sedimentation rates are about 0.3 m/1000 years. At this rate, the age of the first fossiliferous rocks is about 500 million years."

See http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/lectures/age_of_the_earth/age_of_the_earth.html

I believe "Early" would overlap Kelvin's days.

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