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Nevertheless, by the late 19th century the geologists included here had reached a consensus for the age of the earth of around 100 million years.Having come that far, they were initially quite reluctant to accept a further expansion of the geologic timescale by a factor of 10 or more.And we should resist the temptation to blame them for their resistance. Different methods of measurement (such as the decay of uranium to helium versus its decay to lead) sometimes gave discordant values, and almost a decade passed between the first use of radiometric dating and the discovery of isotopes, let alone the working out of the three separate major decay chains in nature.The constancy of radioactive decay rates was regarded as an independent and questionable assumption because it was not known—and could not be known until the development of modern quantum mechanics—that these rates were fixed by the fundamental constants of physics.It is a drama consisting of a prologue and three acts, complex characters, and no clear heroes or villains.We, of course, know the final outcome, but we should not let that influence our appreciation of the story as it unfolds.
One outstanding feature of this drama is the role played by those who themselves were not, or not exclusively, geologists.
The most famous came in 1654, when Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland offered the date of 4004 B. Within decades observation began overtaking such thinking.
In the 1660s Nicolas Steno formulated our modern concepts of deposition of horizontal strata.
One referred to the depth of the sediments and the time they would have taken to accumulate; the other referred to the salinity of the oceans, compared with the rate at which rivers are supplying them with sodium salts.
In hindsight, both theories were deeply misguided, for similar reasons.