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Isotopic age dating

Bishop James Ussher, a 17th-century Irish cleric, for example, calculated that creation occurred in 4004 B. There were many other such estimates, but they invariably resulted in an Earth only a few thousand years old.

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Until the 18th century, this question was principally in the hands of theologians, who based their calculations on biblical chronology.Lord Kelvin and Clarence King calculated the length of time required for the Earth to cool from a white-hot liquid state; they eventually settled on 24 million years.James Joly calculated that the Earth’s age was 89 million years on the basis of the time required for salt to accumulate in the oceans.There were other estimates but the calculations were hotly disputed because they all were obviously flawed by uncertainties in both the initial assumptions and the data.Unbeknownst to the scientists engaged in this controversy, however, geology was about to be profoundly affected by the same discoveries that revolutionized physics at the turn of the 20th century.They observed that every rock formation, no matter how ancient, appeared to be formed from still older rocks.

Comparing these rocks with the products of present erosion, sedimentation, and earth movements, these earliest geologists soon concluded that the time required to form and sculpt the present Earth was immeasurably longer than had previously been thought.

By the early 1960s, most of the major radiometric dating techniques now in use had been tested and their general limitations were known.

No technique, of course, is ever completely perfected and refinement continues to this day, but for more than two decades radiometric dating methods have been used to measure reliably the ages of rocks, the Earth, meteorites, and, since 1969, the Moon.

James Hutton, a physician-farmer and one of the founders of the science of geology, wrote in 1788, “The result, therefore, of our present inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, — no prospect of an end.” Although this may now sound like an overstatement, it nicely expresses the tremendous intellectual leap required when geologic time was finally and forever severed from the artificial limits imposed by the length of the human lifetime.

By the mid- to late 1800s, geologists, physicists, and chemists were searching for ways to quantify the age of the Earth.

Radiometric dating is based on the decay of long-lived radioactive isotopes that occur naturally in rocks and minerals.