The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002.
This volume resulted from the Geological Society's William Smith Millennium Meeting, convened on 28-29 June 2000 at Burlington House on behalf of the History of Geology Group. The book is dedicated to the memory of John Thackray, archivist at the Natural History Museum and the Geological Society who passed away in 1999.
A debate about the Age of the Earth has raged for centuries and absolute dates have been postulated and revised countless numbers of times. The discovery of the concept of deep geologic time was the cornerstone to the development of the modern concepts of geology and biology. It provided Hutton and Lyell with the mechanism to explain the history of the Earth and to formulate the modern principles of geology and Darwin with the time required to explain the transmutation of species. With apologies to plate tectonics it probably represents the most important concept to come out of geology. The volume contains 19 contributions from some of the best-known historians of geology and documents the development of the concept of determining the Age of the Earth over a span of some 350 years from 1650 to 2002. It provides valuable insights both on the techniques and the scientists involved in this enquiry. Although the author list is a bit top heavy with contributors from Great Britain (11 of the 21 contributors), the editors have tried to make it cosmopolitan with authors from Italy, the United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia, Sweden and Germany. This provides a more even handed treatment of the subject from a number of points of view.
The book opens with an introductory essay on "Celebrating the age of the Earth" by the editors Simon Knell and Cherty Lewis where they summarize the key developments for the quest of determining the Age of the Earth. The remaining 18 contributions are arranged in more or less chronological order, beginning with the work on biblical chronology in the 1660's and ending with the radiometric dating chronologies of the present day. Specific contributions on the role of fossils as geological clocks, time and life, dating humans, and the abstraction of cosmic time are also included.
I particularly enjoyed the contributions by Ken Taylor (on Buffon and Desmarest), Martin Rudwick (on Jean-Andre de Luc), Hugh Torrens (on William Smith), Patrick Wyse Jackson (on John Joly), and Cherry Lewis (on Arthur Holmes). The Torrens essay was brilliant and in spite of all of the recent work on Smith managed to cover new ground. On the other hand, I was disappointed with the essay by John Fuller on the early biblical chronologies especially the lack of discussion on the impact of the work by James Ussher and John Lightfoot. This is especially odd given that the title specifically mentions the 4004 BC date. This date became the rallying point from which geology began its dramatic separation from religious orthodoxy and established itself as a viable science. The contribution on the American perspective by Ellis Yochelson and Cherry Lewis was also disappointing as it was superficial. It could have used some of the verve given by Ezio Vaccari on his excellent treatment on the European views on the subject as exemplified by Descartes, Leibniz, Kirchner, Steno, Swedenborg, De Maillet and Scheuuchzer among others.
One disappointing aspect of the volume is the lack of illustrative materials. In total the 19 contributions have only 63 figures and 26 of them are graphic in nature. Geology is a visual science and I would have liked more illustrations. The history comes alive when it is depicted visually. Although the individual contributions stand alone, the editors have provided a common index that I found to be useful. As a bibliophile I enjoy perusing the bibliographies (references in the 19 contributions total 1,245) and I must say that this volume provides the reader with a concise over view of the literature on the subject.
On the whole I found the volume to be well written and tightly edited. Most of the contributions were informative and provided valuable insights on the techniques involved in determining the Age of the Earth. This book would serve well as a textbook for a graduate student seminar course because of its broad coverage of the topic. I think that this volume should be on the shelf of most geologists as it is only through a good understanding of the history of development of a concept that we truly understand it. I am sure that the final page on the quest for determining the age of the earth has not as yet been written and new methodologies will refine our understanding. The concept of deep geologic time will continue to excite future geologists and the quest to determine the Age of the Earth will continue.
S. George Pemberton
Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
University of Alberta,
Edmonton, AB T6G 2E3
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|Author:||Pemberton, S. George|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2004|
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