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James Hutton, a physician-farmer and one of the founders of the science of geology, wrote in 1788, “The result, therefore, of our present inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, — no prospect of an end.” Although this may now sound like an overstatement, it nicely expresses the tremendous intellectual leap required when geologic time was finally and forever severed from the artificial limits imposed by the length of the human lifetime.
By the mid- to late 1800s, geologists, physicists, and chemists were searching for ways to quantify the age of the Earth.
By the early 1960s, most of the major radiometric dating techniques now in use had been tested and their general limitations were known.
No technique, of course, is ever completely perfected and refinement continues to this day, but for more than two decades radiometric dating methods have been used to measure reliably the ages of rocks, the Earth, meteorites, and, since 1969, the Moon.
Comparing these rocks with the products of present erosion, sedimentation, and earth movements, these earliest geologists soon concluded that the time required to form and sculpt the present Earth was immeasurably longer than had previously been thought.The main point is that the ages of rock formations are rarely based on a single, isolated age measurement.On the contrary, radiometric ages are verified whenever possible and practical, and are evaluated by considering other relevant data.My purpose here is not to review and discuss all of the dating methods in use.Instead, I describe briefly only the three principal methods. These are the three methods most commonly used by scientists to determine the ages of rocks because they have the broadest range of applicability and are highly reliable when properly used.