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The Talmudic rabbis, Martin Luther and others used the biblical account to extrapolate back from known history and came up with rather similar estimates for when the earth came into being.

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.

By 1788 Hutton had formulated a theory of cyclic deposition and uplift, with the earth indefinitely old, showing “no vestige of a beginning—no prospect of an end.” Hutton considered the present to be the key to the past, with geologic processes driven by the same forces as those we can see at work today.

This position came to be known as uniformitarianism, but within it we must distinguish between uniformity of natural law (which nearly all of us would accept) and the increasingly questionable assumptions of uniformity of process, uniformity of rate and uniformity of outcome.

Robert Hooke, not long after, suggested that the fossil record would form the basis for a chronology that would “far antedate ...

Florian Cajori, author of the 1908 article “The Age of the Sun and the Earth,” was a historian of science and, especially, of mathematics, and Ray Lankester, whom he quotes, was a zoologist. The first act consists in a direct attack, led by Lord Kelvin, on the extreme uniformitarianism of those such as Charles Lyell, who regarded the earth as indefinitely old and who, with great foresight (or great naivety, depending on your point of view: see the third installment of the 1900 “The Age of the Earth” article by W. Sollas), assumed that physical processes would eventually be discovered to power the great engine of erosion and uplift.

That is the background to the intellectual drama being played out in this series of papers.

It is a drama consisting of a prologue and three acts, complex characters, and no clear heroes or villains.

He was one of the dominant physicists of his time, the Age of Steam.

His achievements ran from helping formulate the laws of thermodynamics to advising on the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Shelton was a philosopher of science, critical (as shown in his contribution, the 1915 article “Sea-Salt and Geologic Time”) of loose thinking and a defender of evolution in debates.

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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.

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