A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 2, Chapter 5 : The Size of the Earth (The Stone-Breakers) | Summary



Bryson next discusses how scientists determined the age of Earth. He begins with amateur scientist James Hutton, who "created the science of geology" in the late 18th century by pursuing questions such as why fossils were found on the tops of mountains. There were two theories at the time. The neptunists believed the explanation was in the rising and falling of sea levels. In contrast, the plutonists believed there were both exterior and interior forces that shaped Earth. Hutton's largest contribution to this debate was the idea that Earth's geological processes required a great deal of time.

After Hutton's theory supported the plutonists, scientists became preoccupied with a new controversy in an attempt to determine exactly how change over such a large span of time would have occurred. There were again two different camps. Catastrophism argued change occurred rapidly and was widespread. Uniformitarianism stated changes occurred slowly over time. Influential geologist Charles Lyell was a major champion of the latter idea, presented in his book Principles of Geology.

Bryson then describes how the naming and labeling of geologic epochs, stages, and ages has changed over time. While different divisions and labeling occurs depending on the area of the world, he points out in his notes a helpful way to remember the difference between eras and periods. Citing writer John Wilford, he advises thinking of the eras (Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic) as seasons in the year and periods (Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, and so on) as the months within those seasons.

By the mid-19th century, the majority of scientists believed that Earth was ancient; the question was to understand exactly how old it was. Various aristocrats, such as the Comte de Buffon and Lord Kelvin, attempted to answer this question with little success. The problem was people had yet to understand how the sun could continue to burn for more than a few tens of millions of years, when the fossil evidence suggested Earth was potentially much older than this.


Hutton and Lyell fathered and contributed greatly to the advancement of geology as a science. However, this chapter continues to emphasize Bryson's point science is often dominated by the individuals who attract the most attention—sometimes to the detriment of progress. Lord Kelvin, for example, whose achievements in other areas were considerable, is said to have become "more forthright in his assertions" about the age of Earth and "less correct."

In addition much scientific knowledge is based around happenstances of history. For example, British names and labels are the most common in the geological lexicon because the British were the most active early in the history of the field. Problems within the field are often the result of how scientists choose to interpret and present data. As a result, when trying to compare data, scientists must attempt to find a common ground. To some extent this can be accomplished by using the jargon associated with a particular field. Even so, however, different perspectives on otherwise straightforward data can result in a lack of agreement about its meaning.

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