Like the lapis lazuli gem it resembles, the blue, cloud-enveloped planet the we recognize immediately from satellite pictures seems remarkably stable. Continents and oceans, encircled by an oxygen-rich atmosphere, support familiar life-forms. Yet this constancy is an illusion produced by the human experience of time. Earth and its atmosphere are continuously altered. Plate tectonics shift the continents, raise mountains and move the ocean floor while processes not fully understood alter the climate.
Such constant change has characterized Earth since its beginning some 4.5 billion years ago. From the outset, heat and gravity shaped the evolution of the planet. These forces were gradually joined by the global effects of the emergence of life. Exploring this past offers us the only possibility of understanding the origin of life and, perhaps, its future.
Scientists used to believe the rocky planets, including Earth, Mercury, Venus and Mars, were created by the rapid gravitational collapse of a dust cloud, a deation giving rise to a dense orb. In the 1960s the Apollo space program changed this view. Studies of moon craters revealed that these gouges were caused by the impact of objects that were in great abundance about 4.5 billion years ago. Thereafter, the number of impacts appeared to have quickly decreased. This observation rejuvenated the theory of accretion postulated by Otto Schmidt. The Russian geophysicist had suggested in 1944 that planets grew in size gradually, step by step.
According to Schmidt, cosmic dust lumped together to form particulates, particulates became gravel, gravel became small balls, then big balls, then tiny planets, or planetesimals, and, nally, dust became the size of the moon. As the planetesimals became larger, their numbers decreased. Consequently, the number of collisions between planetesimals, or meteorites, decreased. Fewer items available for accretion meant that it took a long time to build up a large planet. A calculation made by George W. Wetherill of the Carnegie Institution of Washington suggests that about 100 million years could pass between the formation of an object measuring 10 kilometers in diameter and an object the size of Earth.
The process of accretion had significant thermal consequences for Earth, consequences that forcefully directed its evolution. Large bodies slamming into the planet produced immense heat in its interior, melting the cosmic dust found there. The resulting furnace--situated some 200 to 400 kilometers underground and called a magma ocean--was active for millions of years, giving rise to volcanic eruptions. When Earth was young, heat at the surface caused by volcanism and lava ows from the interior was intensified by the constant bombardment of huge objects, some of them perhaps the size of the moon or even Mars. No life was possible during this period.
Beyond clarifying that Earth had formed through accretion, the Apollo program compelled scientists to try to reconstruct the subsequent temporal and physical development of the early Earth. This undertaking had been considered impossible by founders of geology, including Charles Lyell, to whom the following phrase is attributed: No vestige of a beginning, no prospect for an end. This statement conveys the idea that the young Earth could not be re-created, because its remnants were destroyed by its very activity. But the development of isotope geology in the 1960s had rendered this view obsolete. Their imaginations red by Apollo and the moon ndings, geochemists began to apply this technique to understand the evolution of Earth.
Dating rocks using so-called radioactive clocks allows geologists to work on old terrains that do not contain fossils. The hands of a radioactive clock are isotopes--atoms of the same element that have different atomic weights--and geologic time is measured by the rate of decay of one isotope into another [see "The Earliest History of the Earth," by Derek York; Scientific American, January 1993]. Among the many clocks, those based on the decay of uranium 238 into lead 206 and of uranium 235 into lead 207 are special. Geochronologists can determine the age of samples by analyzing only the daughter product--in this case, lead--of the radioactive parent, uranium.