Nature's Clocks: How Scientists Measure the Age of Almost Everything

Nature's Clocks: How Scientists Measure the Age of Almost Everything

Nature's Clocks: How Scientists Measure the Age of Almost Everything

Nature's Clocks: How Scientists Measure the Age of Almost Everything

Synopsis

"Radioactivity is like a clock that never needs adjusting," writes Doug Macdougall. "It would be hard to design a more reliable timekeeper." In Nature's Clocks, Macdougall tells how scientists who were seeking to understand the past arrived at the ingenious techniques they now use to determine the age of objects and organisms. By examining radiocarbon (C-14) dating--the best known of these methods--and several other techniques that geologists use to decode the distant past, Macdougall unwraps the last century's advances, explaining how they reveal the age of our fossil ancestors such as "Lucy," the timing of the dinosaurs' extinction, and the precise ages of tiny mineral grains that date from the beginning of the earth's history. In lively and accessible prose, he describes how the science of geochronology has developed and flourished. Relating these advances through the stories of the scientists themselves--James Hutton, William Smith, Arthur Holmes, Ernest Rutherford, Willard Libby, and Clair Patterson--Macdougall shows how they used ingenuity and inspiration to construct one of modern science's most significant accomplishments: a timescale for the earth's evolution and human prehistory.

Excerpt

If nobody asks me, I know what time is, but if I am asked,
then I am at a loss what to say.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, A.D. 354–430

While hiking in the Alps one day in 1991, Helmut Simon and his wife had a disturbing experience: they discovered a body. It was partly encased in the ice of a glacier, and their first thought was that it was an unfortunate climber who had met with an accident, or had been trapped in a storm and frozen to death. Word of the corpse spread quickly, and a few days later several other mountaineers viewed it (see figure 1). It was still half frozen in the ice, but they noticed it was emaciated and leathery, and lacking any climbing equipment. They thought it might be hundreds of years old. This possibility generated considerable excitement, and in short order the entire body was excavated from its icy tomb and whisked away by helicopter to the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Innsbruck, in Austria. Researchers there concluded that the corpse was thousands rather than hundreds of years old. They based their estimate on the artifacts that had been found near the body.

As careful as the Innsbruck researchers were, their age assignment for the ancient Alpine Iceman—later named Oetzi after the mountain . . .

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