Strata dating system

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.

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.

The second referred to such topics as the detailed shape of the earth (bulging slightly at the equator) and the dynamics of the earth-moon system.

The third referred to the heat of the sun, particularly the rate at which such heat is being lost, compared with the total amount of energy initially available.

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.

Critical to this resolution were improved methods of dating, which incorporated advances in mass spectrometry, sampling and laser heating.

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.

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. 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. 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.