A ROCK STAR I FORGOT: ARTHUR HOLMES
John H Williams
(Investigator 116, 2007
While researching Greg Neyman's latest (#113) about Dr Dennis Swift and
rock art depicting dinosaurs – "Messages on Stone" – I came
name that I'd omitted in my The Universe and The Earth (#107).
Arthur Holmes (1890-1965) was an outstanding British scientist whose
fine 1944 text, The Principles of Physical Geology, was much used by me
when a student in 1960-62.
My teacher, Arthur Harris MA, a double First at Cambridge, was a
contemporary of Holmes, and a great fan. I'm shocked to realise that
I'd not mentioned his work, despite being an admirer of his book, as I
had no idea of his leading contributions to geochronology and to
Holmes was probably the strongest supporter of Alfred Wegener's
(1880-1930) ideas on continental drift, despite it receiving scepticism
from the geological establishment. The circumstantial evidence was
comprehensive, but no one had any idea about the mechanism that enabled
continents to "plough through" oceans.
One American academic had weighed in with: "This theory is
footloose…considerable liberty is taken with our globe…less bound
by restrictions or tied down by awkward, ugly facts than most of its
rival theories." As Holmes said, "I have never succeeded in freeing
myself of the nagging prejudice against continental drift." (1953)
Wegener's ideas would have remained virtually unnoticed without Holmes'
work: in 1929 he (AH) theorised that it was "thermal convection in the
mantle acting like a conveyor belt which moved continents around." This
insight, an inspired one, was well ahead of current thinking!
About fifteen years later, sonic depth recording began making crude
pictures of the sea floor, followed by the invention of the nuclear
resonance magnetometer, allowing detailed mapping. In 1963 further
oceanographical research led to the theory of sea floor spreading, part
of what became known as plate tectonics, thus finally validating
Wegener and Holmes.
Holmes was an outstanding scientist. While still an undergraduate at
the Royal College of Science (later Imperial College), he was one of
the first to set up radiometric dating experiments based on the
breakdown of uranium to lead. In 1911, aged 21, he dated a Norwegian
rock of Devonian age at 370 million years old, and two years later
published The Age of the Earth, and estimated it at 1.6 billion years.
The rocky dating game generated a lot of heat in the first years of the
twentieth century, with the iconic Lord Kelvin fiercely defending his
20-million-year old Earth until his death in 1907. There were many
‘teething problems' of technique, along with discoveries about nuclear
isotopes. The leading physicists, such as Rutherford and Holmes'
supervisor, Strutt, lost interest and focus, while Holmes was the
"ingenious geoscientist" to persist.
Despite the geological die-hards, who resented the intrusion of
physicists, Holmes pushed to have radiometric dating accepted in
Britain as credible and reliable (1921), and was a prime mover for the
American scientific establishment's ‘stamp of approval' in 1926.
He was likely influenced by Rutherford's and Boltwood's work in
1905-1907, and his dating is similar to their 1907 estimate of 1.64
billion. Edwin Hubble thought it was 2 billion in the early 1920s, but
Holmes and others realised that it was much older still. In 1927 he
estimated its minimum age at 3.0 billion. In 1944 he estimated its age
at 4.5 billion +/- 100my (latest age is 4.567 bn).
Contrast the work of Arthur Holmes with that of Dr Dennis Swift, a
self-described "archaeologist, adventurer and pastor". One website
states he has a Ph.D; another says he has a BA, MA, M Div and Th.D. His
doctorate is in theology! He's the Pastor of Beaverton Nazarene Church,
Oregon, and a young earth creationist purveying the non-sense of humans
co-existing with dinosaurs, as noted by Greg Neyman.
Swift constantly reinforces Young Earth Creationism by providing scores
of photographs of ancient Peruvian figurines which appear vaguely
dinosaurian. The many photographs of these 'recently-seen' dinos is
reminiscent of the plethora of purported UFOs shots, leaving one,
ironically, even more convinced of their non-existence!
Arthur Holmes, Dennis Swift and Ken Ham: who of these three is most
likely to be a disinterested, objective observer of our Earth's
Arthur Holmes, The Age of the Earth (Harper, 1913-1937)
G B Darymple, The Age of the Earth (Stanford Uni Press, 1993)
Cherry Lewis, The Dating Game: One man's Search For The Age of the
Earth (Cambridge Uni Press, 2000).