he question of the ages of the Earth and its rock formations and features has fascinated philosophers, theologians, and scientists for centuries, primarily because the answers put our lives in temporal perspective.Until the 18th century, this question was principally in the hands of theologians, who based their calculations on biblical chronology.Radiometric dating is based on the decay of long-lived radioactive isotopes that occur naturally in rocks and minerals.
Some of the isotopic parents, end-product daughters, and half-lives involved are listed in Table 1.
For example, a method based on a parent isotope with a very long half-life, such as C method can only be used to determine the ages of certain types of young organic material and is useless on old granites.
Some methods work only on closed systems, whereas others work on open systems.
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.
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.