26 October 2010

Let's all celebrate!

Two weeks ago at the John Wesley Powell Museum in Green River UT I bought a copy of John McPhee's "Basin and Range" (1980 Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which focuses on the area of the continent we know as eastern Utah to eastern California -- a portion of which we were traversing with our Road Scholar group. Although McPhee handles geological science, the impact of plate-tectonics on the study of the earth, the strata and time scale of geologic evidence in a way even I can follow (but, heaven help me if I were to have to repeat any of it in a coherent way), it was something else entirely that I would give the prize of "Most Memorable" between the softback covers of his book.

In the late 18th century a quiet revolution, based on the observance of layers of rocks, was beginning. Following is the paragraph that startled me so:

According to conventional wisdom at the time, the earth was between five and six thousand years old. An Irish archbishop (James Ussher), counting generations in his favorite book, figured this out in the century before. Ussher actually dated the earth, saying that it was created in 4004BC. The Irish, as any Oxbridge don would know, are imprecise, and shortly after the publication of Ussher's Annales Veteris et Vovi Testamenti the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University bestirred himself to refine the calculations. He confirmed the year. The Holy Trinity had indeed created the earth in 4004BC -- and they had done so, reported the Vice Chancellor, on October 26th, at 9AM. His name was Lightfoot. (95-6)

Now, I recognize that paragraph to be flippant, even impertinent. And, I have to admit that I looked up Ussher and Lightfoot. McPhee doesn't get the story's details quite right. But, he captured the gist. The resistance to geologic scientific discovery some one hundred years after these gentlemen completed their calculations was fierce and bombastic and authoritative and long-lasting.

In some ways not much has changed. We resist what threatens the who, what, when, why of our daily lives, the stuff on which we've built our world view. And, there's really no reason to expect human response to ideas which frighten to start being different.

There's nothing keeping us from celebrating, though. After all, it seems today's the 6014th anniversary of our earth's blessed event ... Enjoy!

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