Topics: Earth, the Moon, geology, explaining science, Late Heavy Bombardment A few days ago, I wrote a post about the basins of the Moon -- a result of a trip down a rabbit hole of book research.Here's the next step in that journey: the Geologic Time Scales of Earth and the Moon.
Unfortunately, those methods don't work on all rocks, and they don't work at all if you don't have rocks in the laboratory to age-date. They are descriptions of how one rock or event is older or younger than another.There's no absolute age-dating method that works from orbit, and although scientists are working on age-dating instruments small enough to fly on a lander (I'm looking at you, Barbara Cohen), nothing has launched yet. Relative age dating has given us the names we use for the major and minor geologic time periods we use to split up the history of Earth and all the other planets.When you talk about the Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic on Earth, or the Noachian, Hesperian, and Amazonian for Mars, these are all relative ages.Relative-age time periods are what make up the Geologic Time Scale.The Geologic Time Scale is up there with the Periodic Table of Elements as one of those iconic, almost talismanic scientific charts.
Long before I understood what any of it meant, I'd daydream in science class, staring at this chart, sounding out the names, wondering what those black-and-white bars meant, wondering what the colors meant, wondering why the divisions were so uneven, knowing it represented some kind of deep, meaningful, systematic organization of scientific knowledge, and hoping I'd have it all figured out one day.This all has to do with describing how long ago something happened. There are several ways we figure out relative ages.The simplest is the law of superposition: if thing A is deposited on top of (or cuts across, or obliterates) thing B, then thing B must have been there already when thing A happened, so thing B is older than thing A.We have no idea how much older thing B is, we just know that it's older.That's why geologic time is usually diagramed in tall columnar diagrams like this.Just like a stack of sedimentary rocks, time is recorded in horizontal layers, with the oldest layer on the bottom, superposed by ever-younger layers, until you get to the most recent stuff on the tippy top.