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’s free newsletters."data-newsletterpromo-image="https://static.scientificamerican.com/sciam/cache/file/458BF87F-514B-44EE-B87F5D531772CF83_source.png"data-newsletterpromo-button-text="Sign Up"data-newsletterpromo-button-link="https:// origincode=2018_sciam_Article Promo_Newsletter Sign Up"name="article Body" itemprop="article Body" Aristotle thought the earth had existed eternally.Roman poet Lucretius, intellectual heir to the Greek atomists, believed its formation must have been relatively recent, given that there were no records going back beyond the Trojan War.
The first argument was completely undermined after taking into account the amount of heat generated by radioactive decay.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.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.