I picked up a book bargain the other day, ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, by Bill Bryson.
I have enjoyed some of his other books, so without going through it, I thought I would enjoy this one too. Maybe, I wouldn’t have bought it if I had flicked through it, as it contained subjects that wouldn’t necessarily attract me – astronomy, geology, to name a few, in fact every ‘ology’ you could name. But because of Bryson’s fantastic ‘layman’ explanations, I find I am enjoying the book immensely.
Many Christians believe, and still believe, what the bible says that the Earth is 6,000 years old. Indeed, the controversy about the age of the Earth was heightened by the moral dilemma concerning extinction. Would God have deliberately had wiped out creatures? Clearly there was more than Noah’s flood to blame for the extinctions.
By the late eighteenth century, scientists knew the shape, dimensions of the Earth and its from the Sun and planets, so you would think to figure the age of Earth would be straightforward, wouldn’t you?
I want to tell you a little about what Bill Bryson says about the history of the debate about the age of the Earth. One of the early attempt was made in 1650, when Archbishop James Ussher made a careful study of the Bible and other historical sources and concluded that the Earth had been created at midday on 23 October 4004 BC. Ussher’s views dominated scientific beliefs well into the
One of the better early ideas for dating the planet came from Edmond Halley, who in 1715 suggested that if you divided the total amount of salt in the world’s sea by the amount added each year, you would get a rough idea of Earth’s age. Unfortunately, no-one knew how much salt was in the sea or how much it increased each year, so the experiment was considered impracticable.
In 1770, Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon,guessed the Earth’s age was between 75,000 and 168,000 years old. Buffon found he was threatened by excommunication for expressing this opinion.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, most learned people thought the Earth was at least a few million years old, perhaps even some tens of millions years old. So it came as a surprise in 1859, when Charles Darwin announced that the geological processes that had created the Weald, an area of southern England, had taken 306,662,400 years to complete. His statement proved so contentious that he withdrew it from the third edition of ‘On the Origin of Species’.
The next attempt fell to Lord Kelvin, elevated to the peerage in 1892, but still plain William Thomson, when he presented his first effort in 1862, suggesting the Earth was 98 million years old, but cautiously allowing that the figure could be as low as 20 million or as high as 40 million years! He continually revised his estimates, from a maximum of 400 million years to 100 million years, then to 50 million years. Finally, in 1897, he amended his figure to a mere 24 million years.
By the turn of the twentieth century palaeontologists had loads of bones to pick over, but the problem was that they had no idea how old they were. If the Earth was really only 20 million years or so, then ancient creatures must have come into being and gone out again in the same geological instant.
In 1910, the American George Becker, put the Earth’s age was at least hundreds of millions years, probably more.
At McGill University in Montreal a young New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford, became interested in radioactive materials, in the early 1900s. During his tests on pitchblende, he found it was 700 millions years old, much older than the age most people were prepared to grant the Earth.
As with most scientific revolutions, Rutherford’s finding were not universally accepted. John Joly of Trinity College, Dublin, insisted well into the 1930s that the Earth was no more than 89 million years old. But even with radiometric dating, as decay measurements became known, it would be decades before we got to within a billion years or so of the Earth’s actual age.
The problem of dating rocks were such that most people had given up on them, besides, geology had slipped out of fashion – physics was the new kid on the block. Had it not been for a determined English professor, called Arthur Holmes, the quest of dating the Earth might have fallen into abeyance altogether. At Durham University, Holmes was the entire geology department. Often he had to patch together equipment in order to pursue radiometric dating of rocks. In 1946. he announced that the Earth was at least three billion years old, and possibly more.
In Bill Bryson’s book, published in 2003, he says a Clair Patterson (a man, despite the name) in the spring of 1953, at a meeting in Wisconsin, announced a definitive age for the Earth was 4,550 million years* (plus or minus 70 million years) – a figure that stands 50 years later. (*I think Bill Bryson made a typo here. I think he intended to say 4,550 BILLION years. Wikipedia states that the age of the Earth is 4.54 billion years).
Clair Patterson died in 1995. He didn’t win a Nobel Prize, nor did he gain any fame or even much attention for his consistent and selfless achievements. Most geology books don’t mention him. Thanks to the work of Clair Patterson, by 1953 the Earth at last had an age everyone could agree on.