It’s not just the coral that’s beautiful

Here’s a great example of the aesthetic pleasures that well-constructed scientific research can provide.

I was listening to a recent Scientific American podcast this morning, consisting of an interview with the biologist Jerry Coyne, in which Coyne describes a beautiful and subtle piece of research carried out in the 1960s by Professor John Wells (misnamed as “Jonathan” Wells in the podcast), using fossil corals to confirm the slowing of the earth’s rotation over time.

Tidal forces mean that the earth’s rotation is slowing over time, so that the number of hours in each day, and the number of days in each year, are each gradually increasing. As Coyne explains:

…we can actually calculate from the rate of tidal friction how fast the earth is slowing down, make calculations with that.

Wells, an expert in modern and fossil corals, provided a means of confirming this slowing, in what Coyne describes as a “really elegant experiment”:

He looked at fossil corals in which they deposit both daily and annual growth rings, and you can tell by looking at how many daily rings separated an annual ring how many days there were in a year.

These corals had lived 400 million years ago, in the Devonian period. Calculations based on tidal forces showed that a day would have been 22 hours long at that time, rather than 24 hours. Coyne continues:

And then when [Wells] looked at the growth rings of the corals and calculated how long they would have to be to make that many growth rings for a year; it was 21.9 hours, so it was bingo, right on the money.

Now as Coyne points out, this provides compelling evidence that “(a) the earth is really old, (b) it’s been slowing down over time, and (c) these corals lived a long time ago”. But quite apart from the scientific conclusions that can be drawn from it, on a purely aesthetic level this is, as the interviewer says, “a beautiful piece of work”. Quite breathtaking in its elegance.

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6 Responses to It’s not just the coral that’s beautiful

  1. Phil Walker says:

    Really clever, how God made it all look as though it was made last Thursday, eh? 😉

  2. Integer says:

    This is a beautiful blog! I’ll make sure to check in from time to time

  3. Paul Landgraf says:

    I’ve heard arguments like this from both sides (young earth/old earth). When we can progress beyond these details to the heart of the matter, just let me know! 🙂

  4. SimonPotamos says:

    Paul, is this question an apple or an onion? Or is it still the case that the devil (and much else besides) is precisely in the detail?

  5. Eric Seymour says:

    Tidal forces mean that the earth’s rotation is slowing over time, so that the number of hours in each day, and the number of days in each year, are each gradually increasing.

    Actually, if it’s only the earth’s rotation which is slowing down, there would be the same number of hours in each year (1 year = 1 revolution around the sun), and therefore if the rotation is slowing down and there are more hours in each day, there will be *fewer* days in each year.

  6. John H says:

    D’oh! How embarrassing.

    It’s a language fail rather than a maths fail, honest. 😉 I’d done a back-of-a-fag-packet calculation of the number of days having been 398 and now being 365, and somehow in the heat of bashing out a blog post that got turned into “increasing”. Ho-hum.

    Can’t correct it for a few days – am away from PC…

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