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The Quest For the Beginning of Time
Strongly entrenched and supported by the church, Ussher’s day seemed invincible. However, some skeptics put forward their own interpretations. The French Calvinist and lawyer, La Peyrere in 1641 said that there were people on earth before Adam. This was heresy and of course it was banned by Cardinal Richelieu, the prime minister of France. Essentially a man of wisdom and justice, he recognized the impact that the manuscripts of La Peyrereses could have on France. La Peyrere kept this freedom, but he did not give up his beliefs, then in 1655 he caused the wrath of the Catholic Church. He was arrested, buried and forced to change his heretical views – in short he got off lightly. Enter another actor on this big stage – a Jesuit missionary, Farther Martino Martini, who was doing missionary work in China.
When he told the Chinese that the human race had been destroyed by God with a great flood, they greeted his announcements with joy and disbelief. Their own history extended beyond the time they say is the date of the Flood, and they had records to prove it. A change of positions took place, when Martini realized that the ancient Chinese chronology posed a serious problem to the authority of the Bible. In 1654 he returned to Europe, where he published an essay on the history of China, receiving of course the usual disbelief and hostility that characterized all the other opposing views that were promoted at the time. However, arrest and persecution were not possible because Martini returned to China to continue his missionary work. The European countries continued to think wrongly, but little by little the thinking was changing, and its philosophy changed a lot from the biblical texts and began to investigate scientific principles. All over Europe the cry was the same: stones, not books, were believed to hold ancient secrets. And of course they did, and they still do, and it was left to natural philosophers to determine the age of the world.
One of the most interesting ideas of the 17th Century was that the Earth was fully formed; smooth, beautiful, without blemish, without disease, hunger, mountains or deserts to mar her perfect face. The golden age existed before the Flood, and it was the time when all God’s blessings were poured out on the earth – in short, a perfect God created a perfect world. But now things had begun to decline – the Earth was old and wrinkled, the mountains and deserts were carbuncles and scars on the face of the earth. The old prophecy that the world will end in 6000 years was confirmed by nature. The idea was that the Earth has been moving for many days, and the doomsday is not far away, maybe only 350 years in the future (taking the date 4004 BC as the date of creation).
However, this idea of an old Earth brought the idea of a changing world and constant change to the fore, and it was Rene Descartes who led the break with the literal interpretation of the Bible. Because that was the reason. Paris, 1625, and our brilliant and friendly Descartes became the leading beacon of Parisian intellectual life – a time when free thinkers were making their mark. Alertness was always necessary and a weather eye was kept open to gather storm clouds towards or towards Rome. Giulio Vanini, a ‘heretical’ doctor had his tongue cut out before being hanged and burned six years earlier for speaking out against religion. Inevitably the storm broke and Descartes moved to Holland, a country with a tradition of tolerance and generosity that continues to this day. He began his philosophical work, The World, which was supposed to be a complete revision of the philosophy he had published in 1641.
However it was a loose copy of his early writings because it was a bad time for thinkers. Galileo had just been arrested and forced to challenge his heretical theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Descartes’ idea about the world was that a few simple laws govern the universe, and these laws created the complex world around us. The earth had the same relationship to God as a watch has to a watchmaker – once carefully constructed and moving, there was no longer any involvement of the creator. His greatest achievement was removing God from the day-to-day running of the world. Until then the belief was that God was very concerned with the day-to-day, minute-by-minute running of the world. It is possible that God created the world, but it was governed by the laws of nature.
Newton then dispelled Descartes’ misconceptions with his Principia – the laws governing the motions of the universe were now explained in detail. Yet he seems to have wasted his intellect and the last years of his life trying to connect the history of ancient kingdoms with the biblical calendar in the history of celestial events – eclipses and the coming of comets – but with very little success.
His friend Edmond Halley then came up with the theory that the age of the Earth can be calculated by the amount of salt in the sea. By measuring the amount of salt in the sea, and assuming that the salt was continuously eroded from the sea, it would be possible to go back to a time when the seas had no salt at all, which would account for the age of the Earth. In 1715, this was a great idea, but no one, not even Edmond Halley, knew how to measure the amount of salt from year to year, and he was convinced that what he was seeing had to be done for a century to be meaningful. However, Methuselah, despite his famous life, was no longer alive, so this was impossible.
Georges Louis Leclerc Buffon was the next to estimate the age of the Earth. He was well connected with the French court and had the ear of several European leaders. Intelligent, hardworking, and obscure, he suggested that the age of the earth could be estimated by the rate at which it cooled.
He heated up the metal parts and then compared the rate of heat loss when it settled, and then extrapolated this to the Earth at large, settling on 75 000 years to 168 000 years. This was a huge leap from the 6000 year old theory and was almost dismissed due to its complexity. Being a politically astute animal, he rejected his heretical teachings but then continued to preach them for the rest of his life.
Charles Darwin, obviously not happy to stir up controversy, but brave enough to do so, said that the earth was 300 million years old. This date was so difficult that he removed it from his book Origin of the Species. The great Lord Kelvin, who triumphed over Victorian science like a colossus, took Darwin to heart in some of his claims, and declared that the cooling of the earth should not be greater than 24 million years, which was a revision of the original estimate of 400 million. However, although Kelvin was very intelligent, he did not know about the invisible heat deep in the Earth – radioactivity – which drives the engine of our planet. Radioactivity is a concept we have become familiar with due to the popular press, nuclear power and its use in medicine. But Kelvin’s day was not known yet, and it was thanks to the pioneering work of Marie and Pierre Curie that radioactive materials were first identified and separated. Earnest Rutherford then explained to the world how it worked, and the energy released during this process – which provided a way to keep the Earth’s interior at high temperatures. Some of the biggest names in nuclear power come from this time – Bohr, Heisenberg, Thompson, Chadwick and Einstein. Atoms and elements became better understood as well as the chemistry and isotopes of radioactive elements.
This understanding of the radioactive half-life became important for the dating of rocks, Professor Arthur Holmes of Durham University took up the cudgels and introduced methods that are still used today. The method originated from Rutherford’s work in 1904, when he discovered that atoms decay from one element to another at a rate predictable enough to be used as clocks.
Holmes measured the decay rate of uranium to lead, and used this to calculate the age of the Earth. Despite the lack of money and technology, he announced in 1946 that the earth was at least 3 billion years old. His methods were appreciated, but his day was not. But he was much closer to the mark than Kelvin.
In addition to Holmes’ pioneering work, Clair Patterson of the University of Chicago took up the challenge. The problem with dating the Earth is that one needs rocks that are nearly as old, and this rarely happens due to the cycling of the crust due to plate tectonics. In addition, one needs crystals containing uranium within these rocks. Patterson thought that if all the lead on Earth came from radioactive decay, then it would be easy to find the age of the Earth. The more lead a stone had, the older it had to be. In fact, all the lead on Earth did not come from uranium and it was impossible to separate the ‘primordial’ lead – which had been there since the creation of the Earth, from radioactive decay. To avoid this difficult issue, another smart idea was made, that the meteorite was left on the structures from the early days of the solar system, and thus the lead will be the same as that of the early Earth. Perhaps most importantly they did not have enough uranium to disrupt the clock. None of the lead in the meteorite at that time could have come from radioactive decay. Harrison Brown, Patterson’s medical supervisor had this to say to him:
“Pat, you just go in and get an iron meteorite – I’ll get it for you. We’ll take lead from an iron meteorite. You measure its isotopic composition and you put it into the equation. And you’ll be famous, because you’ll have measured the age of the earth.
It took Patterson 7 years to build a fully automated free laboratory and get the results, which dated the Earth at 4550 million years. After three hundred years we had the date of the beginning of the world. And that number still stands today.
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