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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 second depended on highly dubious theories of formation of the earth and moon and plays relatively little role in this compilation.

The third, which by the end was the most acute, presented a problem that outlasted the controversy itself.

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And we should resist the temptation to blame them for their resistance. Different methods of measurement (such as the decay of uranium to helium versus its decay to lead) sometimes gave discordant values, and almost a decade passed between the first use of radiometric dating and the discovery of isotopes, let alone the working out of the three separate major decay chains in nature.In hindsight, both theories were deeply misguided, for similar reasons.They assumed that current rates—of sediment deposition and of salt transport by rivers—were the same as historical rates, despite the evidence they had that our own age is one of atypically high geologic activity. The rock cycle, as we now know, is driven by plate tectonics, with sedimentary material vanishing into subduction zones.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.

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