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Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth

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Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth
By Joe D. Burchfield. With a New Afterword. (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1990. Pg. 278.) ISBN: 978-0-22-608043-7. [Also available as an eBook, ISBN: 978-0-22-608026-0]

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - May 9, 2011

How old is the Earth? Today this question does not generate much debate, with the answer commonly being given as somewhere around 4.5 billion years old. However, in the later part of the 19th century, this was a question without a universally accepted answer. Geology was a new science, physics was in its infancy, Darwinism was just beginning to be generally accepted, and creationism (a literal belief in the bible) was still accepted by most as the primary source of information in regard to the age of the Earth. Practitioners in each of these fields had there own ideas about the age of the Earth, and unique methods of determining the planet's age. Into this fray ventured one of the most influential men of science of the 1800's - William Thomson, who is perhaps best known to us today as Lord Kelvin. [Thomson was elevated to the peerage in 1892 by Queen Victoria, and took the title Baron Kelvin of Lags. Thereafter he was referred to by the honorific title, Lord Kelvin.]

For those not familiar with him, William Thomson (1824 - 1907) was a child prodigy in mathematics. At the age of 22, a year after graduating from Cambridge University, he took up a position as Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, a post that he held until he retired. Over the course of his career, Thomson helped to lay the first undersea communications cable, formulated the first two laws of thermodynamics, and helped to develop the study of physics into a unique field of scientific inquiry.

A scientist and inventor who was not rigidly tied to one field, Thomson was willing to try his hand at just about anything that peeked his curiosity, from the study of electromagnetism to developing a calculator to predict oceanic tides. With the debate simmering about the age of the Earth, Thomson set about using his knowledge of physics, and thermodynamics in particular, to determine the age of the Earth. Working before the advent of radiocarbon dating and before a solid understanding of the make-up of the Earth had been obtained, Thomson determined that the Earth was only 20 400 million years old. This number is not only different from what we now believe is a more accurate figure of 4.5 billion years old, but it also differed greatly with the age estimations that were provided by geologists, Darwinists, and other groups, including astronomers. Thomson, a respected and admired scientist and educator in Britain, Europe, and the United States, obtained an age for the Earth that differed from that proffered by other researchers and further complicated and enlivened an already raucous debate.

When Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth was first published in 1975, it was the first book to look at how William Thomson set about using his detailed knowledge of mathematics, and the new information garnered from his study of physics to determine the age of the Earth. As important, this book looks at how his 'numbers' influenced the ongoing scientific and religious debates that were raging at the time on how old the Earth was, and how this number should be determined. Written by Joe D. Burchfield, professor emeritus of history at Northern Illinois University, this is an engaging and well-written book that will fascinate anyone with an interest in the history of science, Victorian England, geology, or science in general. Burchfield does an excellent job of explaining all technical aspects of the book without talking down to the reader, making this book accessible to those without anything more than a basic high school science education. At the same time he manages to provide enough details to make this a meaty read for those with solid scientific backgrounds. Along the way, Burchfield explores the development of the science of geology and the geological conception of time, and the intersections of the burgeoning sciences of geology and physics that occurred during Thomson's lifetime. In addition, Burchfield ably illustrates the influence that Thomson exerted upon the ongoing debate regarding the age of the Earth, and upon the various researchers trying to come up with an accurate answer.

During his lifetime, Thomson contributed to many remarkable advances in the study of physics. Most of the time he got things right. In figuring out how old the Earth was, he got it wrong. Why and how he did, offers telling insights not only into Thomson's thought processes, but also into the divergent methods of scientific exploration that were ongoing during the reign of Queen Victoria. This book also illustrates how Thomson's research was received and how it was instrumental in spurring other researchers, in a variety of fields, to find a better, more correct answer, if for no other reason than to prove him wrong.

From beginning to end, Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth is an absorbing book. Burchfield provides a solid overview of the range, and causes, of the various controversies surrounding the age of the Earth that arose in the mid to late 1800's. However, the primary focus of this book is on the development of geology as a science and how Thomson's estimations on the age of the Earth intersected at those put out by geologist of the time. I would have preferred that Burchfield had given equal time to other fields of study such as biology and astronomy, and the various people who railed against Thomson's age of the Earth estimates because it did not give credence to their own theories about evolution, the development of the universe, or other fields of inquiry.

Any faults aside, Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth is an excellent book that should be required reading in any college level course dealing with Victorian Science, the History of Geology, or the History of Science in general. It will also be of interest to anyone with a scholarly or general interest in any of the subjects listed above, or who are simply interested in reading a book about a man who is, regrettably, for the most part only remembered today for discovering absolute zero and for having his name appended to the absolute scale of temperature, now known universally as the Kelvin thermodynamic temperature scale.


Interested in learning more about Lord Kelvin?
Please visit Rochelle's Guide to All Things Kelvin for additional information...


Related Reviews:

The Life of Lord Kelvin, by Silvanus P. Thompson.
The work is considered the definitive biography of Lord Kelvin, and it includes Kelvin's personal recollections and data.

Kelvin: Life, Labours and Legacy, edited by Raymond Flood, Mark McCartney, and Andrew Whitaker.
This book contains a collection of chapters, authored by leading experts, covering the life and wide-ranging contributions made by William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907).

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