Paper No. 2
Presentation Time: 1:15 PM


LESTER, Alan, Dept. of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, UCB 399, Boulder, CO 80309,

Over 200 years separate the seminal discoveries of a universe with immense size and an earth of exceptional antiquity. By the late 17th century, the distances to even the nearest stars were understood to be enormous. In contrast, not until the late 19thcentury did scientists become convinced that earth history required not just several thousand years, but most likely hundreds of millions, if not billions, of years.

A persistent, albeit erroneous, standard canon of popularized science history frames religion and science as antagonistic, with religion having restrained both the spatial and temporal dimensions of the universe, but with a markedly tighter grip on its age. Fueled by early social commentaries and by modern-day religious fundamentalism, “Conflict Theory” has not held up to serious historical scrutiny; in fact, during the period of scientific emergence in Western Europe, religion was simply one of many cultural influences.

A more historically accurate explanation for the lag in discovering Deep Time involves two interrelated factors: 1) The rise in quantification and usage of precisely measured time, and 2) the application of mechanistic philosophy to earth process. Together, these influences transformed the 18th century descriptive and dominantly ahistorical “sciences of the earth” into a discipline capable of interpreting earth’s past.

By the late 18th century, the mechanical clock had moved from its origins in church towers and town squares, into people’s homes and their pockets. It not only generated a public perception of time as highly measurable (literally quantized into hours, minutes, etc.), but the device itself became a symbol of mechanization and a metaphor for universal laws, e.g. the “clock-work universe.” The integration of measured time into the cultural consciousness generated an increase in antiquarian and horological pursuits; ultimately encouraging inquiry into earth’s origins. Combined with the success of the mechanistic philosophy, rocks and fossils, by the late 19th century, could finally be used to force a radically new interpretation of earth’s age.