Arthur Holmes’ vision of a geological timescale
Arthur Holmes (1890–1965) was a British geoscientist who devoted much of his academic life to trying to further the understanding of geology by developing a radiometric timescale. From an early age he held in his mind a clear vision of how such a timescale would correlate and unify all geological events and processes. He pioneered the uranium–lead dating technique before the discovery of isotopes; he developed the principle of ‘initial ratios’ thirty years before it became recognized as the key to petrogenesis, and he wrote the most widely read and influential geology book of the twentieth century. But despite all this, much of his contribution to geology has gone unrecognized in the historical literature. This paper attempts to redress this omission, to dispel some of the myths about Holmes’ life, and to trace his contribution to the development of the geological timescale.
Figures & Tables
The Age of the Earth: From 4004 BC to AD 2002
The age of the Earth has long been a subject of great interest to scientists from many disciplines, particularly geologists, biologists, physicists and astronomers. This volume, The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002, brings together contributors from these different subjects, along with historians, to produce a comprehensive review of how the Earth’s age has been perceived since ancient times. Touching on the works of eminent scholars from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, it describes how concepts of the Earth’s history changed as geology slowly separated itself from religious orthodoxy to emerge as a rigorous and self-contained science. Fossils soon became established as useful markers of relative age, while deductions made from geomorphological processes enabled the discussion of time in terms of years. By the end of the nineteenth century biologists and geologists were fiercely debating the issue with physicists who were unwilling to give them the time needed for evolution or uniformitarianism.
With the discovery of radioactivity, attempts to calculate the Earth’s age entered a new era, although these early pioneers in radiometric dating encountered many difficulties, both technical and intellectual, before the enormity of geological time was fully recognized. This effort affected both the theory and practice of geology. Geochronology was largely responsible for it maturing into a professional scientific discipline, as increasingly refined techniques measured not only the age of the rocks, but the rate of processes which now elucidate many aspects of the Earth’s evolution.
Even today the Earth’s chronology remains a contentious topic — particularly for those dating the oldest rocks — and it is implicated in debates surrounding our hominid ancestors, the origins and development of life, and the age of the universe.
The Age of the Earth: from 4004 bc to AD 2002 will be of particular interest to geologists, geochemists, and historians of science, as well as astronomers, archaeologists, biologists and the general reader with an interest in science.