This #VolunteersWeek, join Volunteer Cathedral Steward, Brian Young, as he shares some thoughts on time in our latest blog post.

As the current state of the world offers time to reflect on many things, including perhaps time itself, I thought some time connections with Durham may be of interest.

As a geologist, I find that people suppose that folk like me spend our time just looking at lumps of rock and as they’re pretty dull it perhaps follows ipso facto that geologists are a pretty dull bunch.  I’d completely agree with the former, but judgement on the second is for others to make!  Certainly, taken on face value most chunks of rock are pretty dull, but if you take time to learn a little about them they can tell stories and, I suggest if you pick the right ones, they’ll sing you a song.  Lest you suppose that ‘lockdown’ is taking its toll, and it is certainly affecting us all in some shape or form. What can we learn from the rocks that might help us?

Rocks give us most of the essentials for life. There is an old adage that:

everything we need for life has either been dug from the ground or grown on it and all plants and animals ultimately depend on soil which begins as broken-up rock.”

True enough, but rocks also give us the means to measure time and some connections can be made here with the church and both Durham’s cathedral and university.

Centuries of scientific thought have provided explanations for many natural phenomena but remarkably, until the early 20th century, one of the greatest time conundrums remained unresolved – How old is the Earth? 

The puzzle attracted a number of eminent 17th century thinkers who thought the answer could be derived from analysis of genealogical lineages in the Old Testament. Employing this principle led, perhaps not surprisingly, to some remarkably similar figures:  for example, Johannes Kepler suggested 3992 BC, Sir Isaac Newton a more cautious approximately4000BC, but the most commonly quoted is that of James Ussher, Bishop of Armargh and Primate of All Ireland.  In 1650 he published a precise date for the earth’s creation on 23rd October 4004 BC (I believe he thought it was a Thursday, though his grounds for this detail are unclear!).  Of course, we now know that all of these were well adrift in their numbers, but isn’t it a pity that no one back then thought of making 23rd October an international holiday. Can you think of a better date to celebrate, even if the date has since been revised!?  However, by the late 18th century thinking had moved on with ‘natural philosophers’ of the day concluding that the true figure must be many thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years, but they still had no means of quantifying it.

This brings us to the first Durham connection.  The name for the science – geology – that was to be key to the solution originated here with Richard de Bury, Bishop of Durham from 1333-1345. In his famous text The Philobiblion he recognised two major fields of learning – Theologia or knowledge of God and Geologia or knowledge of the Earth.  Whereas he did not mean the latter in the sense we use it today, this was clearly the root from which the modern science takes its name.  His tomb is in the floor at the south end of the Chapel of the Nine Altars. 

The second Durham connection takes us to the University and Arthur Holmes. Holmes was a native of the north east, born in Gateshead in 1890, who became Durham University’s Professor of Geology in 1924, the first in a succession of internationally renowned scientists to occupy this Chair.  Not so long before Holmes’s appointment, physicists had recognised that unstable radioactive isotopes of a number of chemical elements decay at fixed rates, often on very long timescales.  Geologists realised that this might give offer the long coveted means of dating rocks precisely if suitable rocks containing these isotopes could be found and analysed.  Holmes was one of the first to see this potential and became a passionate and leading pioneer of the new technique of ‘radiometric dating’, developing with his co-workers the first truly  reliable means of attaching real dates to events in the earth’s history, read from its rocks. The early figures were astonishing, revealing that we must think not in terms of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, but of many millions of years, and as analytical techniques became ever more refined and more of the world’s rocks were investigated, the ages kept increasing.  Much of this was down to Holmes, who when reflecting on his work once famously remarked that:

It is perhaps a little indelicate to ask our Mother Earth her age, but science acknowledges no shame”

Thus, a 14th century Bishop of Durham had given a name to a future science which a 20th century Durham professor used to answer one of the world’s great questions.  Following the break-up of his first marriage amid some scandal, Holmes left Durham in 1943 to take up the Chair of Geology in Edinburgh.  The intriguingly and ambiguously titled book “The Dating Game” by Cherry Lewis, published in 2000, is recommended to anyone interested in the life and work of one of Durham’s great scientists.

Measuring the earth’s age did not end with Holmes: it continues to be refined today with ever more sophisticated techniques.  Today our best estimate for the age of our planet is around 4 .6 billion years, that’s 4 600 000 000 million. We in the geology world are often asked “how do you cope with such huge figures”?  Certainly they are big, though modest compared to those traded by cosmologists.  The reality is that, in the way historians describe history in terms of dynasties, Tudor, Stewart, etc., geologists describe earth history in periods, Carboniferous, Permian, etc.  However, this cartoon, devised by a friend of mine, helps to explain the enormity of geological time.  It converts 4.6 billion years into a single day.  Major episodes of earth history are also converted to times on the 24 hour clock.  What it demonstrates is, I think, rather awesome, and from the human perspective deeply humbling. Most of life that we know from the fossil record began as recently as 21.00 hours, with human evolution, from its very earliest beginnings, fitting comfortably within the last second before midnight.


To complete the Durham connection.  Our visitors are always impressed by the cathedral’s age, but just reflect that when the skilled Norman craftsmen began its building a little over 900 years ago they were using stone that had been formed here in vast tropical rivers when what was to become Durham lay astride the equator about 320 million years ago – or about 22.20 hours on our 24 hour clock. And much of this understanding of time was developed here in Durham

Time is an interesting subject, especially when we have time to enjoy it.

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