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This week, Cherry Lewis of the University of Bristol presented a talk about the history of dating the Earth as part of the BA Festival of Science in York, England.Before so-called radiometric dating, Earth's age was anybody's guess.’s free newsletters."data-newsletterpromo-image="https://static.scientificamerican.com/sciam/cache/file/458BF87F-514B-44EE-B87F5D531772CF83_source.png"data-newsletterpromo-button-text="Sign Up"data-newsletterpromo-button-link="https:// origincode=2018_sciam_Article Promo_Newsletter Sign Up"name="article Body" itemprop="article Body" Aristotle thought the earth had existed eternally.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.Robert Hooke, not long after, suggested that the fossil record would form the basis for a chronology that would “far antedate ...
By applying the technique to his oldest rock, Holmes proposed that the Earth was at least 1.6 billion years old.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.In 1898, Marie Curie discovered the phenomenon of radioactivity, in which unstable atoms lose energy, or decay, by emitting radiation in the form of particles or electromagnetic waves.
By 1904 physicist Ernest Rutherford showed how this decay process could act as a clock for dating old rocks.
In a report of his findings published in 1913 in the journal , Holmes expressed the less-than-ecstatic reception his findings received: "The geologist who ten years ago was embarrassed by the shortness of time allowed to him for the evolution of the Earth’s crust , is still more embarrassed with the superabundance with which he is now confronted."The Earth's age continued to be hotly debated for decades afterward. In the 1920s, Earth's age crept up toward 3 billion years, making it for a time even older than the universe, which was then estimated to be about 1.8 billion years old.