3 January 2011

Four books on time

Posted by Callan Bentley

Over the holiday break, I did a lot of reading. I love to read, but my schedule is so busy during the semester that I now consider it a real indulgence to lie back on the couch (or on a Honduran hammock) and just spend hours wrapped up in a book.

I read several books about geologic time, and I’d like to quickly offer some thoughts on them here:

The Age of the Earth by Brent Dalrymple is an exhaustive account of the logic and data in support of our understanding of the age of the Earth as 4.54 billion years old. It is a profoundly comprehensive book, very much in a “review of the literature” style, with chapters dedicated to (1) early attempts at dating the Earth, (2) radiometric dating and how it works, setting aside the topic of lead isotopes, (3) old rocks on Earth, (4) moon rocks, (5) meteorites, (7) lead isotopes in particular, and (8) the age of the Universe, along with element fusion in stars and supernovae.

This is a really good book, and I’m glad I read it. I feel like I’ve got a better handle on isochrons, isotopes, and even the history of the nebular hypothesis as a result of reading it. It’s technical, but if you speak geology, you should enjoy it.

Dalrymple also wrote a more “user friendly” version of the book called Ancient Earth, Ancient Skies, which I checked out of the library but found to be redundant, since I just finished with the Age of the Earth. This one would be appropriate for undergraduate students or interested amateurs.

A different angle was taken in the book The Dating Game: One Man’s Search for the Age of the Earth, by Cherry Lewis. This is pretty much a biography of Arthur Holmes, a grand old geologist from the U.K. who contributed some fundamental ideas and data to the question of the age of the Earth. Holmes features prominently in Dalrymple’s books, too, but Lewis takes a much more personal tack. The reader explores Holmes’ life and career path with tangents into piano playing, romantic affairs, exotic travel, personal tragedy, and ultimately appreciation and vindication. It’s very entertaining, and well-written. It covers a smaller spectrum of the scientific story than Dalrymple, but it’s as much about context as it is science, so you’ll be entertained regardless.

The last book I checked out was The Bible, Rocks, and Time, by Davis Young and Ralph Stearley. This one was conceived of by two Christian geology professors at Calvin College, with the goal of setting straight for other Christians why the geologic record provides profound evidence for an ancient Earth, and why in their view that is compatible with Christian faith. I’m not a Christian, so I didn’t make it more than a few pages into this one. The table of contents looks promising for newbie readers who value frequent references to faith. It appears to be a book that would appeal to those Christians who need someone to tell them it’s okay to trust their own minds and material evidence, even when it directly contradicts a literal reading of their holy scripture. But I zonked out after 12 pages or so, so I couldn’t really tell you for sure. It’s even longer than Dalrymple’s The Age of the Earth, but a lot of that appears to be theological discussion. If you’re a young-Earth creationist, and want to hear from some old-Earth creationists about why “Flood Geology” is hooey, check out The Bible, Rocks, and Time. And let the rest of us know what you think.