The Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth I
Charles Marshall, UC Berkeley
Evolutionary Biology Boot Camp
Charles Marshall, UC Berkeley
Evolutionary Biology Boot Camp
Douglas Erwin, Professor, Santa Fe Institute
July 12, 2006
During the greatest biodiversity crisis in the history of life some 250 million years ago, over 90% of all the species in the oceans died off in just a few hundred thousand years. Douglas Erwin, author of the new book Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago discusses his research in China, South Africa and the western US in search of the causes and consequences of this great mass extinction.
The Permian–Triassic extinction event, informally known as the Great Dying, was an extinction event that occurred 252 million years ago, forming the boundary between the Permian and Triassic geologic periods, as well as the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. It is the Earth’s most severe known extinction event, with up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species becoming extinct. It is the only known mass extinction of insects. Some 57% of all families and 83% of all genera became extinct. Because so much biodiversity was lost, the recovery of life on Earth took significantly longer than after any other extinction event, possibly up to 10 million years.
Researchers have variously suggested that there were from one to three distinct pulses, or phases, of extinction. There are several proposed mechanisms for the extinctions; the earlier phase was likely due to gradual environmental change, while the latter phase has been argued to be due to a catastrophic event. Suggested mechanisms for the latter include large or multiple impact events, increased volcanism, coal/gas fires and explosions from the Siberian Traps, and sudden release of methane from the sea floor; gradual changes include sea-level change, increasing aridity, and a shift in ocean circulation driven by climate change.
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The history of geology is concerned with the development of the natural science of geology. Geology is the scientific study of the origin, history, and structure of the Earth. Throughout the ages geology provides essential theories and data that shape how society conceptualizes the Earth.
Some of the first geological thoughts were about the origin of the Earth. Ancient Greece developed some primary geological concepts concerning the origin of the Earth. Additionally, in the 4th century BC Aristotlemade critical observations of the slow rate of geological change. He observed the composition of the land and formulated a theory where the Earth changes at a slow rate and that these changes cannot be observed during one person’s lifetime. Aristotle developed one of the first evidentially based concepts connected to the geological realm regarding the rate at which the Earth physically changes.
However, it was his successor at the Lyceum, the philosopher Theophrastus, who made the greatest progress in antiquity in his work On Stones. He described many minerals and ores both from local mines such as those at Laurium near Athens, and further afield. He also quite naturally discussed types of marble and building materials like limestones, and attempted a primitive classification of the properties of minerals by their properties such as hardness.
Much later in the Roman period, Pliny the Elder produced a very extensive discussion of many more minerals and metals then widely used for practical ends. He was among the first to correctly identify the origin ofamber as a fossilized resin from trees by the observation of insects trapped within some pieces. He also laid the basis of crystallography by recognising the octahedral habit of diamond.
Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni (AD 973-1048) was one of the earliest Muslim geologists, whose works included the earliest writings on the geology of India, hypothesizing that the Indian subcontinent was once a sea:
Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 981-1037), a Persian polymath, made significant contributions to geology and the natural sciences (which he called Attabieyat) along with other natural philosophers such as Ikhwan AI-Safa and many others. Ibn Sina wrote an encyclopaedic work entitled “Kitab al-Shifa” (the Book of Cure, Healing or Remedy from ignorance), in which Part 2, Section 5, contains his commentary on Aristotle‘s Mineralogy and Meteorology, in six chapters: Formation of mountains, The advantages of mountains in the formation of clouds; Sources of water; Origin of earthquakes; Formation of minerals; The diversity of earth’s terrain.
In medieval China, one of the most intriguing naturalists was Shen Kuo (1031-1095), a polymath personality who dabbled in many fields of study in his age. In terms of geology, Shen Kuo is one of the first naturalists to have formulated a theory of geomorphology. This was based on his observations of sedimentary uplift, soil erosion, deposition of silt, and marine fossils found in the Taihang Mountains, located hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean. He also formulated a theory of gradual climate change, after his observation of ancient petrified bamboos found in a preserved state underground near Yanzhou (modern Yan’an), in the dry northern climate of Shaanxiprovince. He formulated a hypothesis for the process of land formation: based on his observation of fossil shells in a geological stratum in a mountain hundreds of miles from the ocean, he inferred that the land was formed byerosion of the mountains and by deposition of silt.
It was not until the 17th century that geology made great strides in its development. At this time, geology became its own entity in the world of natural science. It was discovered by the Christian world that different translations of the Bible contained different versions of the biblical text. The one entity that remained consistent through all of the interpretations was that the Deluge had formed the world’s geology andgeography. To prove the Bible’s authenticity, individuals felt the need to demonstrate with scientific evidence that the Great Flood had in fact occurred. With this enhanced desire for data came an increase in observations of the Earth’s composition, which in turn led to the discovery of fossils. Although theories that resulted from the heightened interest in the Earth’s composition were often manipulated to support the concept of the Deluge, a genuine outcome was a greater interest in the makeup of the Earth. Due to the strength of Christian beliefs during the 17th century, the theory of the origin of the Earth that was most widely accepted was A New Theory of the Earth published in 1696, by William Whiston. Whiston used Christian reasoning to “prove” that the Great Flood had occurred and that the flood had formed the rock strata of the Earth.
During the 17th century the heated debate between religion and science over the Earth’s origin further propelled interest in the Earth and brought about more systematic identification techniques of the Earth’s strata. The Earth’s strata can be defined as horizontal layers of rock having approximately the same composition throughout. An important pioneer in the science was Nicolas Steno. He was a pioneer in geology. Steno was trained in the classical texts on science; however, by 1659 he seriously questioned accepted knowledge of the natural world. Importantly he questioned explanations for the idea that fossils grew in the ground and explanations of rock formation. His investigations and his subsequent conclusions on fossils and rock formation have led scholars to consider him one of the founders of modern stratigraphy and modern geology.
From this increased interest in the nature of the Earth and its origin, came a heightened attention to minerals and other components of the Earth’s crust. Moreover, the increasing economic importance of mining in Europe during the mid to late 18th century made the possession of accurate knowledge about ores and their natural distribution vital. Scholars began to study the makeup of the Earth in a systematic manner, with detailed comparisons and descriptions not only of the land itself, but of the semi-precious metals it contained, which had great commercial value. For example, in 1774 Abraham Gottlob Werner published the book Von den äusserlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien (On the External Characters of Minerals), which brought him widespread recognition because he presented a detailed system for identifying specific minerals based on external characteristics. The more efficiently productive land for mining could be identified and the semi-precious metals could be found, the more money could be made. This drive for economic gain propelled geology into the limelight and made it a popular subject to pursue. With an increased number of people studying it, came more detailed observations and more information about the Earth.
Also during the eighteenth century, aspects of the history of the Earth—namely the divergences between the accepted religious concept and factual evidence—once again became a popular topic for discussion in society. In 1749 the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon published his Histoire Naturelle, in which he attacked the popular Biblical accounts given by Whiston and other ecclesiastical theorists of the history of Earth. From experimentation with cooling globes, he found that the age of the Earth was not only 4,000 or 5,500 years as inferred from the Bible, but rather 75,000 years. Another individual who described the history of the Earth with reference to neither God nor the Bible was the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who published his Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven (Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels) in 1755. From the works of these respected men, as well as others, it became acceptable by the mid eighteenth century to question the age of the Earth. This questioning represented a turning point in the study of the Earth. It was now possible to study the history of the Earth from a scientific perspective without religious preconceptions.
With the application of scientific methods to the investigation of the Earth’s history, the study of geology could become a distinct field of science. To begin with, the terminology and definition of what constituted geological study had to be worked out. The term “geology” was first used technically in publications by two Genevan naturalists, Jean-André Deluc and Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, though “geology” was not well received as a term until it was taken up in the very influential compendium, the Encyclopédie, published beginning in 1751 by Denis Diderot. Once the term was established to denote the study of the Earth and its history, geology slowly became more generally recognized as a distinct science that could be taught as a field of study at educational institutions. In 1741 the best-known institution in the field of natural history, the National Museum of Natural History in France, created the first teaching position designated specifically for geology. This was an important step in further promoting knowledge of geology as a science and in recognizing the value of widely disseminating such knowledge.
By the 1770s chemistry was starting to play a pivotal role in the theoretical foundation of geology and two opposite theories with committed followers emerged. These contrasting theories offered differing explanations of how the rock layers of the Earth’s surface had formed. One suggested that a liquid inundation, perhaps like the biblical deluge, had created all geological strata. The theory extended chemical theories that had been developing since the seventeenth century and was promoted by Scotland’s John Walker, Sweden’s Johan Gottschalk Wallerius and Germany’s Abraham Werner. Of these names, Werner’s views become internationally influential around 1800. He argued that the Earth’s layers, including basalt and granite, had formed as a precipitate from an ocean that covered the entire Earth. Werner’s system was influential and those who accepted his theory were known as Diluvianists or Neptunists. The Neptunist thesis was the most popular during the late eighteenth century, especially for those who were chemically trained. However, another thesis slowly gained currency from the 1780s forward. Instead of water, some mid eighteenth-century naturalists such as Buffon had suggested that strata had been formed through heat (or fire). The thesis was modified and expanded by the Scottish naturalist James Hutton during the 1780s. He argued against the theory of Neptunism, proposing instead the theory of based on heat. Those who followed this thesis during the early nineteenth century referred to this view as Plutonism: the formation of the Earth through the gradual solidification of a molten mass at a slow rate by the same processes that had occurred throughout history and continued in the present day. This led him to the conclusion that the Earth was immeasurably old and could not possibly be explained within the limits of the chronology inferred from the Bible. Plutonists believed that volcanic processes were the chief agent in rock formation, not water from a Great Flood.
In the early 19th century the mining industry and Industrial Revolution stimulated the rapid development of the stratigraphic column – “the sequence of rock formations arranged according to their order of formation in time.” In England. the mining surveyor William Smith, starting in the 1790s, found empirically that fossils were a highly effective means of distinguishing between otherwise similar formations of the landscape as he travelled the country working on the canal system and produced the first geological map of Britain. At about the same time, the French comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier assisted by his colleague Alexandre Brogniart at the École des Mines de Paris realized that the relative ages of fossils could be determined from a geological standpoint; in terms of what layer of rock the fossils are located and the distance these layers of rock are from the surface of the Earth. Through the synthesis of their findings, Brogniart and Cuvier realized that different strata could be identified by fossil contents and thus each stratum could be assigned to a unique position in a sequence. After the publication of Cuvier and Brongniart’s book, “Description Geologiques des Environs de Paris” in 1811, which outlined the concept, stratigraphy became very popular amongst geologists; many hoped to apply this concept to all the rocks of the Earth. During this century various geologists further refined and completed the stratigraphic column. For instance, in 1833 while Adam Sedgwick was mapping rocks that he had established were from the Cambrian Period, Charles Lyell was elsewhere suggesting a subdivision of theTertiary Period; whilst Roderick Murchison, mapping into Wales from a different direction, was assigning the upper parts of Sedgewick’s Cambrian to the lower parts of his own Silurian Period. The stratigraphic column was significant because it supplied a method to assign a relative age of these rocks by slotting them into different positions in their stratigraphical sequence. This created a global approach to dating the age of the Earth and allowed for further correlations to be drawn from similarities found in the makeup of the Earth’s crust in various countries.
In early nineteenth-century Britain, catastrophism was adapted with the aim of reconciling geological science with religious traditions of the biblical Great Flood. In the early 1820s English geologists including William Buckland and Adam Sedgwick interpreted “diluvial” deposits as the outcome of Noah’s flood, but by the end of the decade they revised their opinions in favour of local inundations. Charles Lyell challenged catastrophism with the publication in 1830 of the first volume of his book Principles of Geology which presented a variety of geological evidence from England, France, Italy and Spain to prove Hutton’s ideas of gradualism correct. He argued that most geological change had been very gradual in human history. Lyell provided evidence for Uniformitarianism; a geological doctrine that processes occur at the same rates in the present as they did in the past and account for all of the Earth’s geological features. Lyell’s works were popular and widely read, the concept of Uniformitarianism had taken a strong hold in geological society.
During the same time that the stratigraphic column was being completed, imperialism drove several countries in the early to mid 19th century to explore distant lands to expand their empires. This gave naturalists the opportunity to collect data on these voyages. In 1831 Captain Robert FitzRoy, given charge of the coastal survey expedition of HMS Beagle, sought a suitable naturalist to examine the land and give geological advice. This fell to Charles Darwin, who had just completed his BA degree and had accompanied Sedgwick on a two week Welsh mapping expedition after taking his Spring course on geology. Fitzroy gave Darwin Lyell’s Principles of Geology, and Darwin became Lyell’s first disciple, inventively theorising onuniformitarian principles about the geological processes he saw, and challenging some of Lyell’s ideas. He speculated about the Earth expanding to explain uplift, then on the basis of the idea that ocean areas sank as land was uplifted, theorised that coral atolls grew from fringing coral reefs round sinking volcanic islands. This idea was confirmed when the Beaglesurveyed the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and in 1842 he published his theory on The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. Darwin’s discovery of giant fossils helped to establish his reputation as a geologist, and his theorising about the causes of their extinction led to his theory of evolution by natural selection published in On the Origin of Species in 1859.
Economic motivations for the practical use of geological data caused governments to support geological research. During the 19th century the governments of several countries including Canada, Australia, Great Britain and the United States funded geological surveying that would produce geological maps of vast areas of the countries. Geological surveying provides the location of useful minerals and such information could be used to benefit the country’s mining industry. With the government funding of geological research, more individuals could study geology with better technology and techniques, leading to the expansion of the field of geology.
In the 19th century, scientific realms established the age of the Earth in terms of millions of years. By the early 20th century the Earth’s estimated age was 2 billion years. Radiometric dating determined the age of minerals and rocks, which provided necessary data to help determine the Earth’s age. With this new discovery based on verifiable scientific data and the possible age of the Earth extending billions of years, the dates of the geological time scale could now be refined. Theories that did not comply with the scientific evidence that established the age of the Earth could no longer be accepted.
The determined age of the Earth as 2 billion years opened doors for theories of continental movement during this vast amount of time. In 1912 Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of Continental Drift. This theory suggests that the continents were joined together at a certain time in the past and formed a single landmass known as Pangaea; thereafter they drifted like rafts over the ocean floor, finally reaching their present position. The shapes of continents and matching coastline geology between some continents indicated they were once attached together as Pangea. Additionally, the theory of continental drift offered a possible explanation as to the formation of mountains. From this, different theories developed as to how mountains were built. Unfortunately, Wegener provided no convincing mechanism for this drift, and his ideas were not accepted during his lifetime.
Research from 1947 found new evidence about the ocean floor, and in 1960 Bruce C. Heezen published the concept of mid-ocean ridges. Soon after this, Robert S. Dietz and Harry H. Hess proposed that the oceanic crust forms as the seafloor spreads apart along mid-ocean ridges in seafloor spreading. This led directly to the theory of Plate Tectonics that was well supported and accepted by almost all geologists by the end of the decade, and provided a mechanism explaining the apparent drift which Wegener had proposed. Geophysical evidence suggested lateral motion of continents and that oceanic crust is younger than continental crust. This geophysical evidence also spurred the hypothesis of paleomagnetism, the record of the orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field recorded in magnetic minerals. British geophysicist S. K. Runcorn suggested the concept of paleomagnetism from his finding that the continents had moved relative to the Earth’s magnetic poles.
By applying sound stratigraphic principles to the distribution of craters on the Moon, it can be argued that almost overnight, Gene Shoemaker took the study of the Moon away from Lunar astronomers and gave it to Lunar geologists.
In recent years, geology has continued its tradition as the study of the character and origin of the Earth, its surface features and internal structure. What changed in the later 20th century is the perspective of geological study. Geology was now studied using a more integrative approach, considering the Earth in a broader context encompassing the atmosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere. Satellites located in space that take wide scope photographs of the Earth provide such a perspective. In 1972, The Landsat Program, a series of satellite missions jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, began supplying satellite images that can be geologically analyzed. These images can be used to map major geological units, recognize and correlate rock types for vast regions and track the movements of Plate Tectonics. A few applications of this data include the ability to produce geologically detailed maps, locate sources of natural energy and predict possible natural disasters caused by plate shifts.
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The age of the Earth is 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years (4.54 × 109 years ± 1%). This age is based on evidence from radiometric age dating of meteorite material and is consistent with the ages of the oldest-known terrestrial and lunar samples.
Following the scientific revolution and the development of radiometric age dating, measurements of lead in uranium-rich minerals showed that some were in excess of a billion years old. The oldest such minerals analyzed to date – small crystals of zircon from the Jack Hills of Western Australia – are at least 4.404 billion years old. Comparing the mass and luminosity of the Sun to those of other stars, it appears that the solar system cannot be much older than those rocks. Calcium-aluminium-rich inclusions – the oldest known solid constituents within meteorites that are formed within the Solar System – are 4.567 billion years old, giving an age for the solar system and an upper limit for the age of Earth.
It is hypothesised that the accretion of Earth began soon after the formation of the calcium-aluminium-rich inclusions and the meteorites. Because the exact amount of time this accretion process took is not yet known, and the predictions from different accretion models range from a few millions up to about 100 million years, the exact age of Earth is difficult to determine. It is also difficult to determine the exact age of theoldest rocks on Earth, exposed at the surface, as they are aggregates of minerals of possibly different ages.
Studies of strata, the layering of rocks and earth, gave naturalists an appreciation that Earth may have been through many changes during its existence. These layers often contained fossilized remains of unknown creatures, leading some to interpret a progression of organisms from layer to layer.
Nicolas Steno in the 17th century was one of the first naturalists to appreciate the connection between fossil remains and strata. His observations led him to formulate important stratigraphic concepts (i.e., the “law of superposition” and the “principle of original horizontality“). In the 1790s, William Smith hypothesized that if two layers of rock at widely differing locations contained similar fossils, then it was very plausible that the layers were the same age. William Smith’s nephew and student, John Phillips, later calculated by such means that Earth was about 96 million years old.
The naturalist Mikhail Lomonosov suggested in the mid-18th century that Earth had been created separately from the rest of the universe, several hundred thousand years before. Lomonosov’s ideas were mostly speculative. In 1779 the Comte du Buffon tried to obtain a value for the age of Earth using an experiment: He created a small globe that resembled Earth in composition and then measured its rate of cooling. This led him to estimate that Earth was about 75,000 years old.
Other naturalists used these hypotheses to construct a history of Earth, though their timelines were inexact as they did not know how long it took to lay down stratigraphic layers. In 1830, geologist Charles Lyell, developing ideas found in James Hutton‘s works, popularized the concept that the features of Earth were in perpetual change, eroding and reforming continuously, and the rate of this change was roughly constant. This was a challenge to the traditional view, which saw the history of Earth as static, with changes brought about by intermittent catastrophes. Many naturalists were influenced by Lyell to become “uniformitarians” who believed that changes were constant and uniform.
In 1862, the physicist William Thomson published calculations that fixed the age of Earth at between 20 million and 400 million years. He assumed that Earth had formed as a completely molten object, and determined the amount of time it would take for the near-surface to cool to its present temperature. His calculations did not account for heat produced via radioactive decay (a process then unknown to science) or convection inside the Earth, which allows more heat to escape from the interior to warm rocks near the surface.
Geologists such as Charles Lyell had trouble accepting such a short age for Earth. For biologists, even 100 million years seemed much too short to be plausible. In Darwin’s theory of evolution, the process of random heritable variation with cumulative selection requires great durations of time. (Modern geneticists have measured the rate of genetic divergence of species, using the molecular clock, to date the last universal ancestor of all living organisms no later than3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago).
In a lecture in 1869, Darwin’s great advocate, Thomas H. Huxley, attacked Thomson’s calculations, suggesting they appeared precise in themselves but were based on faulty assumptions. The physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (in 1856) and astronomer Simon Newcomb (in 1892) contributed their own calculations of 22 and 18 million years respectively to the debate: they independently calculated the amount of time it would take for the Sun to condense down to its current diameter and brightness from the nebula of gas and dust from which it was born. Their values were consistent with Thomson’s calculations. However, they assumed that the Sun was only glowing from the heat of itsgravitational contraction. The process of solar nuclear fusion was not yet known to science.
Other scientists backed up Thomson’s figures as well. Charles Darwin‘s son, the astronomer George H. Darwin, proposed that Earth and Moon had broken apart in their early days when they were both molten. He calculated the amount of time it would have taken for tidal friction to give Earth its current 24-hour day. His value of 56 million years added additional evidence that Thomson was on the right track.
The last estimate Thomson gave, in 1897, was: “that it was more than 20 and less than 40 million year old, and probably much nearer 20 than 40”. In 1899 and 1900, John Joly calculated the rate at which the oceans should have accumulated salt from erosion processes, and determined that the oceans were about 80 to 100 million years old.
By their chemical nature, rock minerals contain certain elements and not others; but in rocks containing radioactive isotopes, the process of radioactive decay generates exotic elements over time. By measuring the concentration of the stable end product of the decay, coupled with knowledge of the half life and initial concentration of the decaying element, the age of the rock can be calculated. Typical radioactive end products are argon from decay of potassium-40, and lead from decay of uranium and thorium. If the rock becomes molten, as happens in Earth’s mantle, such nonradioactive end products typically escape or are redistributed. Thus the age of the oldest terrestrial rock gives a minimum for the age of Earth, assuming that no rock has been intact for longer than the Earth itself.
In 1892, Thomson had been made Lord Kelvin in appreciation of his many scientific accomplishments. Kelvin calculated the age of Earth by using thermal gradients, and arrived at an estimate of 100 million years old. He did not realize that Earth has a highly viscous fluid mantle, and this invalidated his estimate. In 1895, John Perry produced an age-of-Earth estimate of 2 to 3 billion years using a model of a convective mantle and thin crust. Kelvin stuck by his estimate of 100 million years, and later reduced it to about 20 million years.
The discovery of radioactivity introduced another factor in the calculation. After Henri Becquerel‘s initial discovery in 1896, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium in 1898; and in 1903, Pierre Curie and Albert Labordeannounced that radium produces enough heat to melt its own weight in ice in less than an hour. Geologists quickly realized that this upset the assumptions underlying most calculations of the age of Earth. These had assumed that the original heat of the Earth and Sun had dissipated steadily into space, but radioactive decay meant that this heat had been continually replenished. George Darwin and John Joly were the first to point this out, in 1903.
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Radioactivity, which had overthrown the old calculations, yielded a bonus by providing a basis for new calculations, in the form of radiometric dating.
Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy jointly had continued their work on radioactive materials and concluded that radioactivity was due to a spontaneous transmutation of atomic elements. In radioactive decay, an element breaks down into another, lighter element, releasing alpha, beta, or gamma radiation in the process. They also determined that a particular isotope of a radioactive element decays into another element at a distinctive rate. This rate is given in terms of a “half-life“, or the amount of time it takes half of a mass of that radioactive material to break down into its “decay product”.
Some radioactive materials have short half-lives; some have long half-lives. Uranium and thorium have long half-lives, and so persist in Earth’s crust, but radioactive elements with short half-lives have generally disappeared. This suggested that it might be possible to measure the age of Earth by determining the relative proportions of radioactive materials in geological samples. In reality, radioactive elements do not always decay into nonradioactive (“stable”) elements directly, instead, decaying into other radioactive elements that have their own half-lives and so on, until they reach a stable element. Such “decay series”, such as the uranium-radium and thorium series, were known within a few years of the discovery of radioactivity, and provided a basis for constructing techniques of radiometric dating.
The pioneers of radioactivity were chemist Bertram B. Boltwood and the energetic Rutherford. Boltwood had conducted studies of radioactive materials as a consultant, and when Rutherford lectured at Yale in 1904,Boltwood was inspired to describe the relationships between elements in various decay series. Late in 1904, Rutherford took the first step toward radiometric dating by suggesting that the alpha particles released by radioactive decay could be trapped in a rocky material as helium atoms. At the time, Rutherford was only guessing at the relationship between alpha particles and helium atoms, but he would prove the connection four years later.
Soddy and Sir William Ramsay had just determined the rate at which radium produces alpha particles, and Rutherford proposed that he could determine the age of a rock sample by measuring its concentration of helium. He dated a rock in his possession to an age of 40 million years by this technique. Rutherford wrote,
I came into the room, which was half dark, and presently spotted Lord Kelvin in the audience and realized that I was in trouble at the last part of my speech dealing with the age of the Earth, where my views conflicted with his. To my relief, Kelvin fell fast asleep, but as I came to the important point, I saw the old bird sit up, open an eye, and cock a baleful glance at me! Then a sudden inspiration came, and I said, ‘Lord Kelvin had limited the age of the Earth, provided no new source was discovered. That prophetic utterance refers to what we are now considering tonight, radium!’ Behold! the old boy beamed upon me.
Rutherford assumed that the rate of decay of radium as determined by Ramsay and Soddy was accurate, and that helium did not escape from the sample over time. Rutherford’s scheme was inaccurate, but it was a useful first step.
Boltwood focused on the end products of decay series. In 1905, he suggested that lead was the final stable product of the decay of radium. It was already known that radium was an intermediate product of the decay of uranium. Rutherford joined in, outlining a decay process in which radium emitted five alpha particles through various intermediate products to end up with lead, and speculated that the radium-lead decay chain could be used to date rock samples. Boltwood did the legwork, and by the end of 1905 had provided dates for 26 separate rock samples, ranging from 92 to 570 million years. He did not publish these results, which was fortunate because they were flawed by measurement errors and poor estimates of the half-life of radium. Boltwood refined his work and finally published the results in 1907.
Boltwood’s paper pointed out that samples taken from comparable layers of strata had similar lead-to-uranium ratios, and that samples from older layers had a higher proportion of lead, except where there was evidence that lead had leached out of the sample. His studies were flawed by the fact that the decay series of thorium was not understood, which led to incorrect results for samples that contained both uranium and thorium. However, his calculations were far more accurate than any that had been performed to that time. Refinements in the technique would later give ages for Boltwood’s 26 samples of 250 million to 1.3 billion years.
Although Boltwood published his paper in a prominent geological journal, the geological community had little interest in radioactivity. Boltwood gave up work on radiometric dating and went on to investigate other decay series. Rutherford remained mildly curious about the issue of the age of Earth but did little work on it.
Robert Strutt tinkered with Rutherford’s helium method until 1910 and then ceased. However, Strutt’s student Arthur Holmes became interested in radiometric dating and continued to work on it after everyone else had given up. Holmes focused on lead dating, because he regarded the helium method as unpromising. He performed measurements on rock samples and concluded in 1911 that the oldest (a sample from Ceylon) was about 1.6 billion years old. These calculations were not particularly trustworthy. For example, he assumed that the samples had contained only uranium and no lead when they were formed.
More important research was published in 1913. It showed that elements generally exist in multiple variants with different masses, or “isotopes“. In the 1930s, isotopes would be shown to have nuclei with differing numbers of the neutral particles known as “neutrons“. In that same year, other research was published establishing the rules for radioactive decay, allowing more precise identification of decay series.
Many geologists felt these new discoveries made radiometric dating so complicated as to be worthless. Holmes felt that they gave him tools to improve his techniques, and he plodded ahead with his research, publishing before and after the First World War. His work was generally ignored until the 1920s, though in 1917 Joseph Barrell, a professor of geology at Yale, redrew geological history as it was understood at the time to conform to Holmes’s findings in radiometric dating. Barrell’s research determined that the layers of strata had not all been laid down at the same rate, and so current rates of geological change could not be used to provide accurate timelines of the history of Earth.
Holmes’s persistence finally began to pay off in 1921, when the speakers at the yearly meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science came to a rough consensus that Earth was a few billion years old, and that radiometric dating was credible. Holmes published The Age of the Earth, an Introduction to Geological Ideas in 1927 in which he presented a range of 1.6 to 3.0 billion years. No great push to embrace radiometric dating followed, however, and the die-hards in the geological community stubbornly resisted. They had never cared for attempts by physicists to intrude in their domain, and had successfully ignored them so far. The growing weight of evidence finally tilted the balance in 1931, when the National Research Council of the US National Academy of Sciences decided to resolve the question of the age of Earth by appointing a committee to investigate. Holmes, being one of the few people on Earth who was trained in radiometric dating techniques, was a committee member, and in fact wrote most of the final report.
The report concluded that radioactive dating was the only reliable means of pinning down geological time scales. Questions of bias were deflected by the great and exacting detail of the report. It described the methods used, the care with which measurements were made, and their error bars and limitations.
Radiometric dating continues to be the predominant way scientists date geologic timescales. Techniques for radioactive dating have been tested and fine-tuned for the past 50+ years. Forty or so different dating techniques have been utilized to date, working on a wide variety of materials. Dates for the same sample using these different techniques are in very close agreement on the age of the material.
Possible contamination problems do exist, but they have been studied and dealt with by careful investigation, leading to sample preparation procedures being minimized to limit the chance of contamination.
An age of 4.55 ± 0.07 billion years, very close to today’s accepted age, was determined by C.C. Patterson using uranium-lead isotope dating (specifically lead-lead dating) on several meteorites including the Canyon Diablo meteorite and published in 1956.
The quoted age of Earth is derived, in part, from the Canyon Diablo meteorite for several important reasons and is built upon a modern understanding of cosmochemistry built up over decades of research.
Most geological samples from Earth are unable to give a direct date of the formation of Earth from the solar nebula because Earth has undergone differentiation into the core, mantle, and crust, and this has then undergone a long history of mixing and unmixing of these sample reservoirs by plate tectonics, weathering and hydrothermal circulation.
All of these processes may adversely affect isotopic dating mechanisms because the sample cannot always be assumed to have remained as a closed system, by which it is meant that either the parent or daughter nuclide (a species of atom characterised by the number of neutrons and protons an atom contains) or an intermediate daughter nuclide may have been partially removed from the sample, which will skew the resulting isotopic date. To mitigate this effect it is usual to date several minerals in the same sample, to provide an isochron. Alternatively, more than one dating system may be used on a sample to check the date.
Some meteorites are furthermore considered to represent the primitive material from which the accreting solar disk was formed. Some have behaved as closed systems (for some isotopic systems) soon after the solar disk and the planets formed. To date, these assumptions are supported by much scientific observation and repeated isotopic dates, and it is certainly a more robust hypothesis than that which assumes a terrestrial rock has retained its original composition.
Nevertheless, ancient Archaean lead ores of galena have been used to date the formation of Earth as these represent the earliest formed lead-only minerals on the planet and record the earliest homogeneous lead-lead isotope systems on the planet. These have returned age dates of 4.54 billion years with a precision of as little as 1% margin for error.
Statistics for several meteorites that have undergone isochron dating are as follows:
|1. St. Severin (ordinary chondrite)|
|1.||Pb-Pb isochron||4.543 ± 0.019 GY|
|2.||Sm-Nd isochron||4.55 ± 0.33 GY|
|3.||Rb-Sr isochron||4.51 ± 0.15 GY|
|4.||Re-Os isochron||4.68 ± 0.15 GY|
|2. Juvinas (basaltic achondrite)|
|1.||Pb-Pb isochron||4.556 ± 0.012 GY|
|2.||Pb-Pb isochron||4.540 ± 0.001 GY|
|3.||Sm-Nd isochron||4.56 ± 0.08 GY|
|4.||Rb-Sr isochron||4.50 ± 0.07 GY|
|3. Allende (carbonaceous chondrite)|
|1.||Pb-Pb isochron||4.553 ± 0.004 GY|
|2.||Ar-Ar age spectrum||4.52 ± 0.02 GY|
|3.||Ar-Ar age spectrum||4.55 ± 0.03 GY|
|4.||Ar-Ar age spectrum||4.56 ± 0.05 GY|
The Canyon Diablo meteorite was used because it is a very large representative of a particularly rare type of meteorite that contains sulfide minerals (particularly troilite, FeS), metallic nickel–iron alloys, plus silicate minerals.
This is important because the presence of the three mineral phases allows investigation of isotopic dates using samples that provide a great separation in concentrations between parent and daughter nuclides. This is particularly true of uranium and lead. Lead is strongly chalcophilic and is found in the sulfide at a much greater concentration than in the silicate, versus uranium. Because of this segregation in the parent and daughter nuclides during the formation of the meteorite, this allowed a much more precise date of the formation of the solar disk and hence the planets than ever before.
The age determined from the Canyon Diablo meteorite has been confirmed by hundreds of other age determinations, from both terrestrial samples and other meteorites. The meteorite samples, however, show a spread from 4.53 to 4.58 billion years ago. This is interpreted as the duration of formation of the solar nebula and its collapse into the solar disk to form the Sun and the planets. This 50 million year time span allows for accretion of the planets from the original solar dust and meteorites.
The moon, as another extraterrestrial body that has not undergone plate tectonics and that has no atmosphere, provides quite precise age dates from the samples returned from the Apollo missions. Rocks returned from the Moon have been dated at a maximum of around 4.4 and 4.5 billion years old. Martian meteorites that have landed upon Earth have also been dated to around 4.5 billion years old by lead-lead dating. Lunar samples, since they have not been disturbed by weathering, plate tectonics or material moved by organisms, can also provide dating by direct electron microscope examination of cosmic ray tracks. The accumulation of dislocations generated by high energy cosmic ray particle impacts provides another confirmation of the isotopic dates. Cosmic ray dating is only useful on material that has not been melted, since melting erases the crystalline structure of the material, and wipes away the tracks left by the particles.
Altogether, the concordance of age dates of both the earliest terrestrial lead reservoirs and all other reservoirs within the Solar System found to date are used to support the hypothesis that Earth and the rest of the Solar System formed at around 4.53 to 4.58 billion years ago.
The radiometric date of meteorites can be verified with studies of the Sun. The Sun can be dated using helioseismic methods that strongly agree with the radiometric dates found for the oldest meteorites.