Soft Centred Science

Soft Centred Science

This is the Kiplingesque story of How the Earth Got its Soft Centre and it would be totally unbelievable except for the involvement of Earth Scientists who are renowned for being Big Softies – particularly between the ears.

He’s been sucked in by all that Kiplingesque double-talk that transformed India from a place where plain ordinary greedy Englishmen carved something out for themselves to balance out the more tedious consequences of the law of primogeniture, into one where they appeared to go voluntarily into exile for the good of their souls and the uplift of the native.

The Raj Quartet, Volume 4: A Division of Spoils – Paul Scott – 1975

For Earth Scientists this is a bedtime story called Goldilocks and the Three Bears whilst for the more rational observers it’s an example of the Goldilocks Principle in action.

The Goldilocks principle states that something must fall within certain margins, as opposed to reaching extremes.

When the effects of the principle are observed, it is known as the Goldilocks effect.

The Goldilocks principle is derived from a children’s story “The Three Bears” in which a little girl named Goldilocks finds a house owned by three bears.

Each bear has their own preference of food and beds.

After testing all three examples of both items, Goldilocks determines that one of them is always too much in one extreme (too hot or too large), one is too much in the opposite extreme (too cold or too small), and one is “just right”.

It is applied across many disciplines, particularly developmental psychology, biology, economics and engineering.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Then I will begin.

Once upon a time in the 17th century Archbishop Ussher decided that the Earth was created at 18:00 on Saturday 22nd October 4004 BC.

The Ussher chronology is a 17th-century chronology of the history of the world formulated from a literal reading of the Bible by James Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh (Church of Ireland).

The chronology is sometimes called the Ussher-Lightfoot chronology because John Lightfoot published a similar chronology in 1642–1644.

This, however, is a misnomer, as the chronology is based on Ussher’s work alone and not that of Lightfoot.

Ussher deduced that the first day of creation began at nightfall on Saturday, October 22, 4004 BC, in the proleptic Julian calendar, near the autumnal equinox.

He elsewhere dates the time to 6 pm.

Lightfoot similarly deduced that Creation began at nightfall near the autumnal equinox, but in the year 3929 BC.

Then in the late 18th century [as the Age of Enlightenment drew to a close] the age of the Earth was determined to somewhere between 75,000 and 96 million years old.

The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) is an era from the 1620s to the 1780s in which cultural and intellectual forces in Western Europe emphasized reason, analysis, and individualism rather than traditional lines of authority.

It was promoted by philosophes and local thinkers in urban coffee houses, salons, and Masonic lodges.

It challenged the authority of institutions that were deeply rooted in society, especially the Catholic Church; there was much talk of ways to reform society with toleration, science and skepticism.

In the 1790s, William Smith hypothesized that if two layers of rock at widely differing locations contained similar fossils, then it was very plausible that the layers were the same age.

William Smith’s nephew and student, John Phillips, later calculated by such means that Earth was about 96 million years old.

In 1779 the Comte du Buffon tried to obtain a value for the age of Earth using an experiment: He created a small globe that resembled Earth in composition and then measured its rate of cooling.

This led him to estimate that Earth was about 75,000 years old.

Regressing into the Age of Unenlightenment at the end of the 18th century we encounter the Uniformitarians and James Hutton [in particular] who famously stuck his thumb into the terrestrial plum pudding and decided the Earth was indefinitely ancient and thereby established the concept of Deep Time: “No vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”

By the end of the 19th century, Ussher’s chronology came under increasing attack from supporters of uniformitarianism, who argued that Ussher’s “young Earth” was incompatible with the increasingly accepted view of an Earth much more ancient than Ussher’s.

Deep time is the concept of geologic time.

The modern philosophical concept was developed in the 18th century by Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726–1797).

Hutton’s view of deep time was based on a form of geochemistry that had been developed in Scotland and Scandinavia from the 1750s onward.

An understanding of geologic history and the concomitant history of life requires a comprehension of time which initially may be disconcerting.

As mathematician John Playfair, one of Hutton’s friends and colleagues in the Scottish Enlightenment, later remarked upon seeing the strata of the angular unconformity at Siccar Point with Hutton and James Hall in June 1788, “the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.”

The early nineteenth-century formulation of Uniformitarianism was commonly expressed through Hutton’s aphorism, “No vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”

John Perry’s neglected critique of Kelvin’s age for the Earth:
A missed opportunity in geodynamics – Philip England – GSA Today – Jan 2007

Uniformitarianism is the scientific observation that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe now have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe.

It has included the gradualistic concept that “the present is the key to the past” and is functioning at the same rates.

In 1859 Charles Darwin upset the amorphous Deep Time apple cart when he had the temerity to estimate that a “small portion of recent geological time” spanned 300 million years.

Charles Darwin’s brief lapse of caution in 1859 changed all that.

Time was as important for Darwin’s theory as it had been for Lyell’s, and he drew on it liberally.

But when Darwin decided to illustrate the magnitude of the time he envisioned with a quick and dirty calculation of the time needed for the denudation of the Weald, his result – more than 300 million years for a small portion of recent geological time – drew a deluge of protest (Darwin 1859, p. 287; see Burchfield 1974).

The Age of the Earth and the Invention of Geological Time – Joe D. Burchfield
Geological Society, London, Special Publications – 1998; v. 143; p. 137-143

The amorphous Deep Time apple cart was further thrown into confusion in 1862 when the formidable physicist William Thomson stuck his thermometer into the terrestrial plum pudding and calculated that the Earth was between 20 and 400 million years old.

Thomson was a creationist in a broad sense, but he was not a ‘flood geologist’.

He contended that the laws of thermodynamics operated from the birth of the universe and envisaged a dynamic process that saw the organisation and evolution of the solar system and other structures, followed by a gradual “heat death”.

He developed the view that the Earth had once been too hot to support life and contrasted this view with that of uniformitarianism, that conditions had remained constant since the indefinite past.

He contended that
“This earth, certainly a moderate number of millions of years ago, was a red-hot globe … .”,_1st_Baron_Kelvin#Age_of_the_Earth:_geology_and_theology

In 1862, the physicist William Thomson published calculations that fixed the age of Earth at between 20 million and 400 million years.

He assumed that Earth had formed as a completely molten object, and determined the amount of time it would take for the near-surface to cool to its present temperature.

The doctrine that the Earth was of unlimited age allowed geologists to explain any phenomenon not by the laws of physics, but by “reckless drafts on the bank of time” (Chamberlin, 1899).

For Kelvin, this game without rules was simply not scientific; indeed, it was forbidden by the laws of thermodynamics, which he had played such a large part in developing.

John Perry’s neglected critique of Kelvin’s age for the Earth:
A missed opportunity in geodynamics – Philip England – GSA Today – Jan 2007

Confronted by rational assumptions, mathematics and the physics of thermodynamics the Uniformitarians were in a lather and after much blather Charles Lyell finally decided [in 1867] that the Earth was 240 million years old.

In 1864, James Croll proposed a hypothesis linking the onset of the ice ages to changes in the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit (Croll 1864).

By 1867, Croll had developed his hypothesis sufficiently to suggest that the calculated dates of periods of high orbital eccentricity might be used to determine the date of the most recent glacial epoch (Croll 1867).

Stimulated by Croll’s theory, Lyell made his own attempt to date the last ice age, choosing as the most likely date, a period of very pronounced eccentricity which, according to astronomical calculations, occurred between 750000 and 850 000 years ago.

Lyell then combined this date with his statistical palaeontology of the tertiary molluscs to suggest that a complete revolution of species would require about 20 Ma.

Assuming that approximately equal periods of time were necessary for each of the twelve revolutions that he estimated had occurred since the beginning of the Cambrian, he concluded that the total time required would be 240 Ma.

Lyell published this result in volume one of the tenth edition of the Principles in 1867, thus finally giving a quantitative scale to his conception of ‘indefinite time’ (Lyell 1867, pp. 271-301).

The Age of the Earth and the Invention of Geological Time – Joe D. Burchfield
Geological Society, London, Special Publications – 1998; v. 143; p. 137-143

This only caused the Uniformitarians to squabble amongst themselves and James Croll decided in 1868 that the terrestrial plum pudding was 60 million years old.

Responding a year later, Croll questioned Lyell’s choice of an early rather than a later period of high orbital eccentricity.

If, instead, one chose the more recent period of high orbital eccentricity which occurred about 80 000 years ago, Croll showed that Lyell’s method of calculation would yield an age of only 60Ma since the beginning of the Cambrian.

The Age of the Earth and the Invention of Geological Time – Joe D. Burchfield
Geological Society, London, Special Publications – 1998; v. 143; p. 137-143

The squabbling over these wildly divergent guesstimates let the more astute Earth Scientists to quietly removed their guesstimates from later editions of their books.

Like Darwin, Lyell quietly removed his one quantitative estimate of time from the later editions of his book.

The Age of the Earth and the Invention of Geological Time – Joe D. Burchfield
Geological Society, London, Special Publications – 1998; v. 143; p. 137-143

The arguments between the Unenlightened Uniformitarians and the Enlightened Scientists rumbled on through the 19th century and in 1897 William Thomson [aka Lord Kelvin] revised his estimate for the terrestrial plum pudding to between 20 and 40 million years old.

Thomson’s initial 1864 estimate of the Earth’s age was from 20 to 400 million years old.

These wide limits were due to his uncertainty about the melting temperature of rock, to which he equated the earth’s interior temperature.

Over the years he refined his arguments and reduced the upper bound by a factor of ten, and in 1897 Thomson, now Lord Kelvin, ultimately settled on an estimate that the Earth was 20–40 million years old.,_1st_Baron_Kelvin#Age_of_the_Earth:_geology_and_theology

The physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (in 1856) and astronomer Simon Newcomb (in 1892) contributed their own calculations of 22 and 18 million years respectively to the debate: they independently calculated the amount of time it would take for the Sun to condense down to its current diameter and brightness from the nebula of gas and dust from which it was born.

Their values were consistent with Thomson’s calculations.

The net result of the battle between Lord Kelvin and the Unenlightened Uniformitarians was the morphing of the Deep Time mantra into: “The present is the key to the past”.

It is easy to overlook the enormous gains to geology that came simply from having to fight the battle with Kelvin about the age of the Earth.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the doctrine of a steady-state Earth of indefinite age had been replaced by the understanding that present geological processes provide guides to, and constraints upon, past geological events:
“No vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end” had been replaced by
“The present is the key to the past”
(Chamberlin,1899; Burchfield, 1975).

John Perry’s neglected critique of Kelvin’s age for the Earth:
A missed opportunity in geodynamics – Philip England – GSA Today – Jan 2007

The impact of Lord Kelvin was only transitory because the Unenlightened Uniformitarians simply bided their time until Lord Kelvin turned up his toes so they could bury him [and his ideas] under six feet of terrestrial plum pudding in 1907.

However, in a strange twist to the story, John Perry [in 1895] determined that if the interior of the terrestrial plum pudding was “fluid, or partly fluid” then Lord Kelvin’s calculations could be modified to demonstrate the Earth was a little over 2 billion years old.

John Perry (1850–1920) was a pioneering engineer and mathematician from Ireland.

Perry worked as Lord Kelvin’s assistant at the University of Glasgow, and later became professor of mechanical engineering at Finsbury Technical College.

He was a colleague of William Edward Ayrton and John Milne at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo, 1875–79, and was also a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1900 he was elected president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, and from 1906–08 served as president of the Physical Society of London.

In 1895, Perry published a paper challenging Kelvin’s assumption of low thermal conductivity inside the Earth, and thus disputing Kelvin’s estimate that the Earth was only 20–400 million years old, but this had little impact.

Perry’s reasoning held that if the interior of the Earth was fluid, or partly fluid, it would transfer heat much more effectively than the conductivity which Kelvin assumed, and he stated that “much internal fluidity would practically mean infinite conductivity for our purpose.”

John Perry

Figure 3. John Perry, a professor of engineering who had at one time served as Kelvin’s assistant, was able to reconcile measurements of the geothermal gradient with the Earth being billions of years old by considering the planet to have a convecting, fluid mantle overlain by a relatively thin lid of solid rock.

Calculations using Perry’s model with a 50-kilometer-thick lid, along with modern estimates for the thermal diffusivity and freezing point of mantle rock, show that the range of estimates for the mean geothermal gradient (brown band on graph) is compatible with ages as great as 2 billion or 3 billion years (green line).

With Kelvin’s model of uniform thermal conductivity, the geothermal gradient is compatible only with ages between about 20 million and 100 million years (blue line).

Graph at left by Barbara Aulicino. Photograph at right by Science Museum Pictorial.

Kelvin, Perry and the Age of the Earth
Philip C. England, Peter Molnar, Frank M. Richter
American Scientist – July-August 2007 – Volume 95 – Number 4 – Page: 342

Perry had two reasons for postulating a higher conductivity in the interior.

First, experimental evidence showed an increase, if modest, in conductivity of rocks with temperature; in addition, the Earth’s increase in density with depth implies a greater proportion of iron and other materials that conduct heat better than do silicates.

More radically, he argued (Perry, 1895a) that convection in the fluid, or partly fluid, interior of the Earth would transfer heat much more effectively than would conduction: “… much internal fluidity would practically mean infinite conductivity for our purpose.”

Perry and Heaviside modified Kelvin’s calculation for the case of large, but finite, interior conductivity (Perry, 1895b; Carslaw and Jaeger, 1959, p. 322) and showed that the Earth’s present heat flux is consistent with an age of gigayears provided that the conducting lid is a few tens of kilometers thick and the effective (or “quasi-”) conductivity of the interior is ~100 times greater than that of the lid.

John Perry’s neglected critique of Kelvin’s age for the Earth:
A missed opportunity in geodynamics
Philip England – Geological Society of America – GSA Today – Jan 2007

1874 Honorary assistant to Professor Sir William Thomson at the University of Glasgow.
1875 Professor of civil engineering at the Imperial College in Tokyo.
1881 City and Guilds Institute as its national examiner in mechanical engineering.
1882 Appointed professor of mechanical engineering at Finsbury Technical College
1896 Professor of mathematics and mechanics (to 1913) at the Royal College of Science and School of Mines in London

Grace’s Guide: British Industrial History – John Perry (1850-1920)

Unsurprisingly, the Unenlightened Uniformitarians were too Soft Centred to understand the mathematics and technicalities of this [almost] timeless gift from John Perry.

Perry published his case (Perry, 1895a, 1895b, 1895c) in the pages of Nature, which, judging by the passion that authors of papers attached to their agendas, was as prominent an organ of scientific discourse in 1895 as it is today.

It is also probable that Perry was not understood by most people who cared about the age of the Earth.

A thread running through much of Kelvin’s writing on this subject is that the geological community of his time shied away from mathematics (Lindley, 2004).

Geologists may have regarded Perry’s exchanges with Kelvin (Kelvin, 1895; Perry, 1895a, 1895b, 1895c) as nothing more than an incomprehensible tussle among physicists.

John Perry’s neglected critique of Kelvin’s age for the Earth:
A missed opportunity in geodynamics
Philip England – Geological Society of America – GSA Today – Jan 2007

Instead some Unenlightened Uniformitarians “tinkered” with radiometric dating until they eventually arrived at a range of between 1.6 and 3.0 billion years old in 1927.

Some radioactive materials have short half-lives; some have long half-lives.

Uranium and thorium have long half-lives, and so persist in Earth’s crust, but radioactive elements with short half-lives have generally disappeared.

This suggested that it might be possible to measure the age of Earth by determining the relative proportions of radioactive materials in geological samples.

In reality, radioactive elements do not always decay into nonradioactive (“stable”) elements directly, instead, decaying into other radioactive elements that have their own half-lives and so on, until they reach a stable element.

Such “decay series”, such as the uranium-radium and thorium series, were known within a few years of the discovery of radioactivity, and provided a basis for constructing techniques of radiometric dating.

Robert Strutt tinkered with Rutherford’s helium method until 1910 and then ceased.

However, Strutt’s student Arthur Holmes became interested in radiometric dating and continued to work on it after everyone else had given up.

Holmes focused on lead dating, because he regarded the helium method as unpromising.

He performed measurements on rock samples and concluded in 1911 that the oldest (a sample from Ceylon) was about 1.6 billion years old.

These calculations were not particularly trustworthy.

For example, he assumed that the samples had contained only uranium and no lead when they were formed.

Holmes’s persistence finally began to pay off in 1921, when the speakers at the yearly meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science came to a rough consensus that Earth was a few billion years old, and that radiometric dating was credible.

Holmes published The Age of the Earth, an Introduction to Geological Ideas in 1927 in which he presented a range of 1.6 to 3.0 billion years.

However, this tinkering with radiometric dating was purely a transient trend because the Earth’s crust “does not contain enough radioactive heat” and what little heat it does provide would not have affected Lord Kelvin’s calculations.

We now know that the crust does not contain enough radioactive heat to explain the surface heat flux; nevertheless, it is still frequently stated that, because the discovery of radioactive heat undermined an assumption behind Kelvin’s calculation, it also undermined his conclusion.

This statement is logically incorrect; Kelvin’s conclusion would be undermined by that discovery only if incorporation of the Earth’s radioactive heat into his calculation produced a substantially different age for the Earth.

This level of heating raises the heat flux above that in Kelvin’s calculation by a few mW m−2 the first g.y. of Earth’s history; consequently – even if Kelvin had included radioactive heat in his calculation – his estimate of the age of the Earth would have been unaffected (Richter, 1986).

John Perry’s neglected critique of Kelvin’s age for the Earth:
A missed opportunity in geodynamics
Philip England – Geological Society of America – GSA Today – Jan 2007

Therefore, it is no surprise that some Unenlightened Uniformitarians were still constructing models of a solid terrestrial plum pudding in the 1960s.

As late as the 1960s, geophysical models were being constructed that tried to match the surface heat flux employing a solid Earth with elaborate distributions of thermal conductivity and heat generation.

John Perry’s neglected critique of Kelvin’s age for the Earth:
A missed opportunity in geodynamics
Philip England – Geological Society of America – GSA Today – Jan 2007

However, when the Unenlightened Uniformitarians invented Plate Tectonics they needed a “fluid-like (visco-elastic solid) asthenosphere” so they eventually resurrected John Perry´s “fluid, or partly fluid” terrestrial plum pudding.

Continental drift is the movement of the Earth’s continents relative to each other, thus appearing to “drift” across the ocean bed.

The speculation that continents might have ‘drifted’ was first put forward by Abraham Ortelius in 1596.

The concept was independently and more fully developed by Alfred Wegener in 1912, but his theory was rejected by some for lack of a mechanism (though this was supplied later by Holmes) and others because of prior theoretical commitments.

The idea of continental drift has been subsumed by the theory of plate tectonics, which explains how the continents move.

Plate tectonics is a scientific theory that describes the large-scale motion of Earth’s lithosphere.

This theoretical model builds on the concept of continental drift which was developed during the first few decades of the 20th century.

The geoscientific community accepted the theory after the concepts of seafloor spreading were later developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The key principle of plate tectonics is that the lithosphere exists as separate and distinct tectonic plates, which ride on the fluid-like (visco-elastic solid) asthenosphere.

However, this tale of the Goldilocks Principle now veers off into the absurd because the Unenlightened Uniformitarians want the Earth to be even older than the [roughly] 2 billion years associated with a “fluid, or partly fluid” terrestrial plum pudding.

In a leap of laughable logic the Unenlightened Uniformitarians are now using extraterrestrial meteorite material to guesstimate the age of the Earth.

The age of the Earth is 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years (4.54 × 109 years ± 1%).

This age is based on evidence from radiometric age dating of meteorite material and is consistent with the radiometric ages of the oldest-known terrestrial and lunar samples.

This line of laughable logic would allow Earth Scientists to date [for example] Caernarfon Castle based upon the age of one car randomly selected from the front parking lot.

Caernarfon Castle

Clearly, Earth Scientists are just Big Softies – particularly between the ears.

Therefore, if you want to know the age of the Earth don’t ask an Earth Scientist.

Gallery | This entry was posted in Earth, Geology, Inventions & Deceptions, Radiocarbon Dating, Science, Uniformitarianism. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Soft Centred Science

  1. gymnosperm says:

    The soft center, aka the liquid Iron et al core, is cited as the source of the earth’s magnetic field. This ignores that molten iron is above its Curie point where magnetic properties become disorganized.

  2. kuhnkat says:

    “As mathematician John Playfair, one of Hutton’s friends and colleagues in the Scottish Enlightenment, later remarked upon seeing the strata of the angular unconformity at Siccar Point with Hutton and James Hall in June 1788, “the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.””

    Probably the scotch.

    Ahhhh speculation. What would hard science be without it…

  3. riu says:

    The article made me search for constant decay which got me to a ‘decay constant’ that seems in fact to be variable, influenced by the Sun’s radiation ( and who knows what else.

  4. malagabay says:

    Thanks – decay rates look like another huge can of worms

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