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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.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.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. 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. 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”).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.
And we should resist the temptation to blame them for their resistance. Different methods of measurement (such as the decay of uranium to helium versus its decay to lead) sometimes gave discordant values, and almost a decade passed between the first use of radiometric dating and the discovery of isotopes, let alone the working out of the three separate major decay chains in nature.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.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.