How do we know the age of the Earth?

4:38 PM, Nov 24, 2012   |    comments
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Dan Vergano USA TODAY

November 24. 2012 - Football is fun for bickering, but for really wrecking family dinners over the Thanksgiving holidays, try tackling the week's political argument over the age of the Earth.

The fun kicked off when GQ Magazine quoted political hot property Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., saying in an interview that our planet's age was "one of the great mysteries." Acknowledging the many believers in the biblical account of creation, Rubio said, "Whether the Earth was created in seven days, or seven actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that."

But the answer upset pundits and geophysicists. The answer had been provided some time ago by a scientist whose contributions were ignored in the opinion-page fights that followed. The scientist was Caltech geophysicist, Clair Cameron Patterson, the forgotten man in the week's most discussed debate, besides Thursday's Lions vs. Texans NFL refereeing debacle, of course.

No one mentioned Patterson, though, as consternation ensued from both the right and left. Dueling New York Times columnists Ross Douthat and Paul Krugman critiqued the answer from the 42-year-old politician, who is widely seen as a possible 2016 presidential election contender (yep, they are already arguing about that). Slate's Dan Engber came along on Tuesday and noted that in 2008, then-senator Barack Obama also didn't directly answer 4.5 billion years when asked a similar sort of question.

Lost amid the back-and-forth is the answer to the question of how we know the age of our planet. And that is a shame, because the scientist who figured it out, Patterson, also provided the planet more than just its birth date. He saved many of us alive today from the scourge of lead poisoning.

"He was a fearless guy," says Caltech geologist John Eiler, who spoke from the lab where Patterson made many of his discoveries. "Wherever the science took him, he would follow."

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