The Earth is very old -- 4.5 billion years or more -- according to recent estimates. This vast span of time, called geologic time by earth scientists, is difficult to comprehend in the familiar time units of months and years, or even centuries. How then do scientists reckon geologic time, and why do they believe the Earth is so old? A great part of the secret of the Earth's age is locked up in its rocks, and our centuries-old search for the key led to the beginning and nourished the growth of geologic science.
The evidence for an ancient Earth is concealed in the rocks that form the Earth's crust and surface. The rocks are not all the same age -- or even nearly so -- but, like the pages in a long and complicated history, they record the Earthshaping events and life of the past. The record, however, is incomplete. Many pages, especially in the early parts, are missing and many others are tattered, torn, and difficult to decipher. But enough of the pages are preserved to reward the reader with accounts of astounding episodes which certify that the Earth is billions of years old.
Two scales are used to date these episodes and to measure the age of the Earth: a relative time scale, based on the sequence of layering of the rocks and the evolution of life, and the radiometric time scale, based on the natural radioactivity of chemical elements in some of the rocks. An explanation of the relative scale highlights events in the growth of geologic science itself; the radiometric scale is a more recent development borrowed from the physical sciences and applied to geologic problems.