supernovas. According to these calculations, the age of our galaxy is between 9 billion and 16 billion years. Thus, both ways of estimating the age of the Milky Way galaxy agree with each other, and they also are consistent with the independently derived estimate for the age of the universe.

Radioactive elements occurring naturally in rocks and minerals also provide a means of estimating the age of the solar system and Earth. Several of these elements decay with half lives between 700 million and more than 100 billion years (the half life of an element is the time it takes for half of the element to decay radioactively into another element). Using these time-keepers, it is calculated that meteorites, which are fragments of asteroids, formed between 4.53 billion and 4.58 billion years ago (asteroids are small "planetoids" that revolve around the sun and are remnants of the solar nebula that gave rise to the sun and planets). The same radioactive time-keepers applied to the three oldest lunar samples returned to Earth by the Apollo astronauts yield ages between 4.4 billion and 4.5 billion years, providing minimum estimates for the time since the formation of the moon.

The oldest known rocks on Earth occur in northwestern Canada (3.96 billion years), but well-studied rocks nearly as old are also found in other parts of the world. In Western Australia, zircon crystals encased within younger rocks have ages as old as 4.3 billion years, making these tiny crystals the oldest materials so far found on Earth.

The best estimates of Earth's age are obtained by calculating the time required for development of the observed lead isotopes in Earth's oldest lead ores. These estimates yield 4.54 billion years as the age of Earth and of meteorites, and hence of the solar system.

The origins of life cannot be dated as precisely, but there is evidence that bacteria-like organisms lived on Earth 3.5 billion years ago, and they may have existed even earlier, when the first solid crust formed, almost 4 billion years ago. These early organisms must have been simpler than the organisms living today. Furthermore, before the earliest organisms there must have been structures that one would not call "alive" but that are now components of living things. Today, all living organisms store and transmit hereditary information using two kinds of molecules: DNA and RNA. Each of these molecules is in turn composed of four kinds of subunits known as nucleotides. The sequences of nucleotides in particular lengths of DNA or RNA, known as genes, direct the construction of molecules known as proteins, which in turn catalyze biochemical reactions, provide structural components for organisms, and perform many of the other functions on which life depends. Proteins consist of chains of subunits known as amino acids. The sequence of nucleotides in DNA and RNA therefore determines the sequence of amino acids in proteins; this is a central mechanism in all of biology.

Experiments conducted under conditions intended to resemble those present on primitive Earth have resulted in the production of some of the chemical components of proteins, DNA, and RNA. Some of these molecules also have been detected in meteorites from outer space and in interstellar space by astronomers using radio-telescopes. Scientists have concluded that the "building blocks of life" could have been available early in Earth's history.



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