Measuring age on earth: Life on earth and in the universe

When asked for your age, it’s likely you won’t slip (with the exception of a recent birthday mistake). But for the sprawling sphere we call home, age is a much trickier matter.

This week, Cherry Lewis of the University of Bristol presented a talk about the history of dating the Earth as part of the BA Festival of Science in York, England.

Before so-called radiometric dating, Earth’s age was anybody’s guess. Our planet was pegged at a youthful few thousand years old by Bible readers (by counting all the “begats” since Adam) as late as the end of the 19th century, with physicist Lord Kelvin providing another nascent estimate of 100 million years. Kelvin defended this calculation throughout his life, even disputing Darwin’s explanations of evolution as impossible in that time period.

The best estimate for Earth’s age is based on radiometric dating of fragments from the Canyon Diablo iron meteorite. From the fragments, scientists calculated the relative abundances of elements that formed as radioactive uranium decayed over billions of years.”It was not until the 1950s that the age of the universe was finally revised and put safely beyond the age of the Earth, which had at last reached its true age of 4.56 billion years,” Lewis said. “Physicists suddenly gained a new respect for geologists.”For the record, the universe is now thought to have debuted, at least in its latest incarnation, about 13.7 billion ago.