Kelvin and the Physics of Time

  • Joe D. Burchfield


The study of geology has always attracted and profited from the efforts of dedicated amateurs. Even after its emergence at the beginning of the nineteenth century as a fully independent branch of science, the appearance of a growing cadre of professional geologists stimulated rather than inhibited the activity of a still larger band of amateurs. In England especially, geology was the popular science par excellence. Clergymen, professional men, scholars, leisured gentlemen, and scientists from other branches of science were all attracted to its problems. They filled the geological societies and made important contributions to the literature of the maturing science. Kelvin was such an amateur.


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  1. 1.
    Thompson (1910), Kelvin, I: 9–10.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ibid., I: 185–188. Even the title of this dissertation is in some doubt. Thompson recorded it as “De Caloris distributione per terrae corpus,” while Kelvin referred to it as “De Motu Caloris per Terrae Corpus.” See Kelvin (1882–1911), Mathematical Papers, III: 295.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
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  7. 7.
    Kelvin’s arguments here are remarkably similar to those put forward several years earlier by J. R. Mayer. But Mayer’s Beiträge zur Dynamik des Himmels, in popular Darstellung (Heilbronn, 1848) had been privately printed and was almost unknown in England until the early sixties when it played a prominent role in the controversy between Kelvin, P. G. Tait, and John Tyndall over the priority of the discovery of the conservation of energy. It finally appeared in English in April 1863 as “On Celestial Dynamics.” See Mayer, J. R. (1863a).Google Scholar
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    Kelvin (1862), Age of the Sun’s Heat, pp. 373–375. The basic principle outlined here applies equally well to the theory that meteors are constandy replenishing the sun’s heat, and to the theory that they were merely the source of its primordial energy. It was the growing weight of astronomical evidence showing that the supply of meteors available was inadequate for his hypothesis, not the methodological problems involved, that forced Kelvin to abandon his original position.Google Scholar
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    Helmholtz (1856), Interaction of Natural Forces. The original lecture, “Über die Wechselwirkung der Naturkraft” was delivered on 7 Feb. 1854 in Könisberg, Prussia, Kant’s native city.Google Scholar
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  33. Here, as in the case of Lyell’s Principles, it seems unlikely that Kelvin ever systematically read the Origin. Darwin’s calculation of time based on the denudation of the Weald (see chapter 3) was widely criticized in both the popular and scientific press, and thus Kelvin had no trouble in finding the point for attack. Certainly it is significant that he continued to attack Darwin’s calculation long after it had been removed from subsequent editions of the Origin. He was either unaware of or chose to ignore the fact that Darwin had retreated on the question of an exact time scale.Google Scholar
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  36. 31.
    Kelvin’s approach to the problem of the earth’s secutar cooling relied heavily upon the elegant mathematical analysis of heat transfer published by J. B. J. Fourier in 1822 (See Fourier (1822), Thèorie analytique de la chaleur.) and read by Kelvin in 1840. Moreover, Kelvin’s first published paper, prepared before he entered Cambridge in 1841, was a defense of part of Fourier’s theory, while his subsequent work makes it clear that the problems of heat transfer, including their application to the earth itself, occupied a significant part of his attention over the next several decades.Google Scholar
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  38. 32.
    In 1849, Forbes was engaged in a five-year series of observations of temperature gradients in different minerals and at different depths in several locations around Edinburgh. Kelvin apparently assisted him for a while and made use of the data gathered for many years. (See: Thompson (1910), Kelvin, I: 210Google Scholar
  39. Shairp, Tait, and Adams (1873), Life of Forbes, pp. 463–464.)Google Scholar
  40. Forbes also provided additional data when Kelvin was preparing “On the Secular Cooling of the Earth” in 1861. (See letter from Forbes to J. Phillips in Phillips’ (1869), Vesuvius, pp. 345–347.)Google Scholar
  41. Between those dates, Kelvin published several papers on the problem of underground heat in which many of the elements of his subsequent calculation of time were developed, although the age of the earth itself was not mentioned. (See: Kelvin (1855), Observations of Terrestrial Temperature;Google Scholar
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  54. According to S. P. Thompson, this address may have been read for Kelvin, since at about this time his wife’s continued ill health carried him to the continent and for many months he read no other papers. (See: Thompson (1910), Kelvin, I: 527.)Google Scholar
  55. 39.
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  61. 43.
    See, e.g.: Kelvin (1872), Rigidity of the Earth;Google Scholar
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  64. Kelvin (1882), Internal Condition of the Earth. (Also see letter from Kelvin to G. H. Darwin, 28 Dec. 1881 in Thompson (1910), Kelvin, II: 778–779.)Google Scholar
  65. 44.
    Kelvin’s statements of this belief appear as early as 1854 and continue throughout the century. (See: Kelvin (1854c), Mechanical Antecedents, pp. 36–37;Google Scholar
  66. Kelvin (1871a), Geological Time, pp. 51–52;Google Scholar
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  68. Kelvin (1881), Sources of Energy in Nature, pp. 435–37;Google Scholar
  69. Kelvin (1889), On the Sun’s Heat, pp. 378–379, 391;Google Scholar
  70. Kelvin (1892a), Dissipation of Energy, pp. 473–74.)Google Scholar
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    Thompson (1910), Kelvin, II: 860.Google Scholar
  72. 46.
    Kelvin (1889), On the Sun’s Heat.Google Scholar
  73. 47.
    Ibid., p. 397.Google Scholar
  74. 48.
    Kelvin (1892a), Dissipation of Energy, p. 474.Google Scholar
  75. The quotation is taken from Kelvin (1852), Dissipation of Mechanical Energy, p. 514. (My italics)Google Scholar
  76. 49.
    Kelvin (1863a), Secular Cooling, p. 300;Google Scholar
  77. Kelvin (1876), Geological Time, p. 64;Google Scholar
  78. Kelvin (1876), Review of the Evidence, p. 243;Google Scholar
  79. Kelvin (1899), Age of the Earth, pp. 215–216, 226;Google Scholar
  80. Thompson (1910), Kelvin, II: 779.Google Scholar
  81. 50.
    Kelvin (1895a), Age of the Earth, p. 227. The full importance of the exchange with Perry is discussed in Chapter 5.Google Scholar
  82. 51.
    Kelvin (1876), Review of the Evidence, pp. 238–43.Google Scholar
  83. 52.
    Kelvin never published an endorsement of the implications of radioactivity for geological time. On the contrary, as is discussed in Chapter 6, he opposed the idea that radioactive materials could spontaneously emit heat without being supplied by an outside source. Nonetheless, J. J. Thomson reports that in private conversation Kelvin did concede that his theories had been overthrown. (See: Thomson, J. J. (1936), Recollections, p. 420.)Google Scholar
  84. 53.
    Archibald Geikie attributed to Joseph Larmor the following statement, supposedly uttered at Kelvin’s funeral: “Conceive a perfectly level line drawn from the summit of Newton’s genius across all the intervening generations; probably the only man who reached it in these two centuries has been Kelvin.” Geikie, A. (1924), Autobiography, pp. 350–351.Google Scholar
  85. Such opinions, if not quite so extreme or poetic, were common, ranging from Helmholtz’s opinion of the young Kelvin (Thompson (1910), Kelvin, 1:310, 324–25)Google Scholar
  86. Frank Harris’ observation on the leader of British science (Harris (1963), Life and Loves, p. 389).Google Scholar
  87. 54.
    Quoted in King, A. G. (1925), Kelvin the Man, p. 96.Google Scholar
  88. 55.
    A brief but authoritative discussion of this point is given in Thomson, J. J. (1936), Recollections, p. 421.Google Scholar
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  92. King, A. G. (1925), Kelvin the Man, pp. 28–31.Google Scholar
  93. This opinion, it should be noted, is directly contrary to that expressed in Eiseley (1961), Darwin’s Century, pp. 234–235.Google Scholar
  94. 59.
    Kelvin (1871c), Presidential Address– p. 200.Google Scholar
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  97. all subsequent editions. (Also see: Mandelbaum (1958), Darwin’s Religious Views.)Google Scholar
  98. 62.
    Hutton (1788), Theory of the Earth, p. 304.Google Scholar
  99. 63.
    For a valuable discussion of Lyell’s views on this point see: Rudwick (1970), Strategy of Lyell’s Principles, especially pp. 7–8.Google Scholar
  100. 64.
    Kelvin makes this point specifically clear several times, as for example in Kelvin (1863a), Secular Cooling, p. 295Google Scholar
  101. Kelvin (1871b), Geological Dynamics, p. 77.Google Scholar

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© Science History Publications 1975

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  • Joe D. Burchfield

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