18 August 2006

Deep Time

Posted by Dan Satterfield

One of the last things I had to do before I finished my Masters in Earth Science was a presentation on James Hutton. Hutton is not one of the famous great scientists like Newton, Darwin or Galileo. He probably deserves to be a name that everyone knows, but such is not the case.

Hutton is known today as the founder of modern Geology. He was a Scottish naturalist who had a medical degree but never practiced. He was also a farmer who gave it up to do chemistry and study rocks and minerals. He had some famous friends, like Joseph Black the person who discovered Carbon Dioxide.

They invited him to join the Royal Society of Scotland. This was (and still is) a prestigious organization of the brightest minds of the time.

Hutton lived in the 18th century and after much prodding he agreed to deliver a paper to the society stating his views on the age of the earth. He created a sensation when his paper to the societywas published. In it he made his famous statement (Well famous to Geologists at least) that in regard to the age of the earth “We see no vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end”. In an age where almost everyone believed the Earth was no more than 6,000 years old, this was a phenomenal statement.

The criticism came almost at once. Much of it from the religious leaders of the day who believed it to contradict the bibles version of earth history. Even Isaac Newton ,before his death, had pondered the question. He came up with about 6,000 years. In an age where you could still be put under house arrest for offending the church this was a safe thing to do!

Hutton’s study of rocks and the earth had convinced him that the fossils he saw in rocks were from once living animals and that the only way that fossils on a mountain top could be there, was if that land had once been beneath an ocean. Since he believed that the same processes acting now acted in the past, the only explanation for this was time..DEEP TIME. Time so liong that it was almost impossible to imagine.

Hutton never gave an age for the earth but probably thought it could be millions of years old at least. We know now that it is 4,500 million years old-give or take.

To prove his theroy, he searched for what geologists now call an unconformity. A sequence of rocks with a missing gap of time in them. Imagine if you will a set of rocks from 500 million years ago on top of rocks from 900 million years sgo. What happened to the rocks in the missing 400 million years? That is an unconformity.

Hutton found his unconformity on a sunny June day in the late 1700’s off the coast of Scotland. The location, then and now is called Siccar Point. It is south of Edinburgh and his a place of homage for Geologists the world over. It is called Hutton’s Unconformity. This sequence of rocks went a long way in proving his theories. I hope to visit it the next time I am in beautiful Scotland.

If you want to learn more about James Hutton, I highly recommend the following book:
The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth’s Antiquity

by Jack Repchek

It takes courage to stand up and tell everyone that what they have always thought about something is wrong. Hutton did just that. Perhaps someday he will be given the same recognition of other brilliant scientists like Einstein, Darwin, Newton and Galileo.