The Age of the Earth

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Scientists and idly curious troublemakers have long pondered the age of the Earth.

Tribes of early humans believed the Earth to be “no more than 5 years older than the wisest man in the village”, on grounds of respect.

Bands of primitive, itinerant philosophers once argued that the Earth (and the whole universe) for all we know may have been instantaneously created 15 minutes ago by a powerful prankster, with all of our (mostly false) memories intact, all of the planets in motion, all of the dinosaur bones in place, and so on.

Although no one has been able to refute such philosophers, they haven’t been invited to a lot of parties in the past 2,000 or so years.

The first significant progress in modern times was made when the infamous 1840s Boston street tough “Landon” hypothesized that the age of the earth is equivalent to the number of times it would take an average street tough to punch his way to the core — 1 year per punch.

One famous geophysicist of the time, Bradford Marshall, gave this theory great credence as “punch force to penetrate earthly stuff is linearly related to thickness and thickness linearly to cumulative density over time, whereby Landon’s law be established hoo-rah.”

Charlie Wiggins, another famous geophysicist of the era, rejected the hypothesis, as “no one, let alone any street tough, has punched more than 4-6 inches into the Earth”. Wiggins added that “Landon was an idiot and a bully, and any of my graduate students who reference his law will be disowned.”

Modern historians now know that Landon and Bradford were brothers in a street tough gang, and Charlie was beaten by them on several occasions, including at a soda fountain, a newspaper stand, and the shoe shine booth of a geophysicists convention.

In 1890, Cambridge chemist Admiral Bertram Fitzwallis argued that the age of the Earth could be deduced by measuring the average salinity of the oceans, as the degeneration of the Earth’s rocks and minerals slowly increases oceanic saltiness over time.

Admiral Fitzwallis’s sample of ocean water, however, was contaminated by drippings from a bowl of particularly potent chow mein, and Fitzwallis falsely surmised the Earth to be “143.2 trillion years of age, with a distinct aroma of celery and mung bean”.

Modern historians now know that Fitzwallis was preoccupied with saltiness over time due to his psychological fixation on sea captains. Moreover, they suspect that Fitzwallis was not an actual admiral. Research in military archives has revealed that Fitzwallis’s real name was “Twig Pepper”, a name so uninspiring that Fitzwallis was prohibited from joining the navies of Britain, Finland, and Germany.

The true age of the Earth, 4.5 billion years, was finally discovered in the 1950s by Cal Tech geochemist Claire Patterson. Patterson used radiometric isotope dating—a process where concentrations of radioactive decay materials are measured against known decay rates—on a collection of meteorites.

Patterson’s measurement stands as among the most significant scientific measurements of the 20th century, next to Einstein’s measurement of the speed of light using a flashlight, a tape measure, and a stopwatch. 

Claire Patterson will be forever known for his brilliant contributions to geochemistry, his proud place in illuminating our celestial origins, and his signature Finnish Navy Admiral’s hat that he loved to wear on special occasions. Although Patterson was never in the Navy and had no special relationship with any military organization, he loved the way his Admiral’s hat looked when paired with a dashing blue blazer.

Historians of science at Cambridge University have speculated Patterson’s hat to be a slight nod to his forebear, Twig Pepper. This speculation has generated acute controversy, however, with a faction at Oxford insisting that “Patterson was a fashion hepcat” and “Patterson wore the hat ironically”.

This rift caused a brawl to break out at the shoe shine booth of the 2003 International Historians of Science Convention, in Geneva Switzerland, with the Cambridge faction shouting “Patterson was no hepcat!” and the Oxford faction replying “we’re just here for a shine and a polish!”

Dr. Patterson died in 1995 while filming a Discovery Channel documentary called “Meteors: Our Misunderstood Friends” when a meteor specimen on loan from the Smithsonian was hurled at him by an irate anti-war camera man who didn’t like his Admiral’s hat. 

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Alex Baia is a humor writer and contributor to McSweeney’s and Slackjaw. He lives in Austin, TX.