Time to Rock

John Deacon, Brian May, and Freddie Mercury of Queen c. 1977

Growing up in the 90s Philippines meant Sundays hunched over the radio listening to 70s and 80s tunes and then suffering from nostalgia for a distant past never experienced. Take for example an admission from your former lovers saying that they still love you, only, they are arachnids that are always somewhere. Or there is this group, who as a whole, sang about the African continent’s echoing drums and crying wild dogs. I have never been to Africa but I feel like blessing its rains.

These songs are often labeled “hard rock” prefixed or followed by the word “classic”. The former indicating their genre and the latter a subjective placement in a prestigious pedestal from the past. Time is the essence here. What the word does is attach a temporal attribute to what it defines. Music from Beethoven, Chopin, Handel, Mendelssohn, and Pachelbel are considered “classical”, belonging to a past era of a certain musical quality different from the now. So too, is classic hard rock, albeit belonging to a more recent past. What is common to both is the fact that they are old.

This is one reason why youtube comments are rife with rueful ruminations. Just type “hard rock classics” and click the first suggestion (what showed up in my search was a playlist). You do not have to bother listening to the song, the important thing is to dig through the comments. Statements like, “I was born in the wrong generation”, “music from the past is so much better than now”, “is this a JoJo reference?”, “the 80s were the best”, and other variations permeate predominantly. Classic hard rock is perceived as the domain where a golden era of rock music dominated the airwaves. In contrast to the present, it ruled, it rocked, and it rolled. To dare disparage this epoch is an act of heresy punishable by a one way trip down the highway to hell.

When it came to doubting the classic status of the biggest rock of all, that is, the Earth, the scientific establishment became a proto-youtube comment section. Scientists, even of the highest caliber, held strongly to the belief that the old idea is the idea – new ones are rubbish. The old is so much better than the new!

220px-Arthurholmesin1912But one man continued on rocking and rolling with his new idea. That is, by collecting rock samples and rolling them along experimental setups to derive an estimate of their age. His was a detective work that involved radioactive investigations in an atomic scale to deduce the larger truth of a geological concern. A Sherlock Holmes of the Earth, only, his name was Arthur.

Feeling that earthly concerns were the prime scientific interests of his life, Arthur Holmes (1890-1965) moved from physics to geology while studying on a scholarship at Imperial College London. A move that did not necessarily spell a divorce, as his scientific legacy was solidified by his marriage of the two, epitomized in his classic 1944 totem Principles of Physical Geology (1944).

Holmes started dating Devonian Earth at the age of 21. We know for sure that on the first date he asked the question, so, uhmm, how old are you? And in that attempt, he was not at all trying to be romantic. His front was, first and foremost, radiometric. To get a definitive answer, Holmes used a technique developed by Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy that involved looking at how things change. This technique looks at the amount of radioactive decay as one element changes into another. Say, the amount of lead formed from uranium decay after some time. The more lead you have, the older the sample is. Or imagine estimating the age of your date by observing how their hair turns grey and counting it. By the end of the date, Holmes found that Devonian’s age was about 370 Ma (Mega annum, or million years). He was correct.

Two years later, in 1913, Holmes decided to boldly declare to the world his rocky relationship. It came in the form of a book aptly titled The Age of the Earth wherein he stated that the Earth was 1.6 billion years old. The scientific community was appalled by his pronouncement. Irony and paradox looks as if the guilty culprits in this objection, as scientists believed in the old idea that the Earth was young; now here comes Holmes with a new idea saying that the Earth is actually old.

The established elite wanted none of his silly new nonsense. A glaring reflection of the dominant and recurring attitudes within the scientific establishment that still echoes today. First, Holmes was in some ways considered an outsider. He was a physicist who shifted to geology. Second, Holmes was yet to receive his PhD when he released his book (he received his PhD in 1917). A combination of the worst possible kind: a young outsider. Now who would want to believe that? In a 1915 meet of geologists, Holmes recalls a reader taking the bully pulpit to take a swipe at him:

“I was being violently attacked by the reader of a paper who insisted that the Age of the Earth must be less than 100 million years old. . .  The reader of the paper insisted that all atoms of lead must have the same atomic weight, and I found myself in an exasperated minority of one.”

Holmes stayed solid under pressure. Instead of caving in, he refined his results many times over. The tempo kept on changing, but the song remained the same, all done in no easy circumstance. Like the rocks he sampled, the situation he found himself in was extremely hard. In 1924, he successfully applied for a position in Durham University to helm its newly inaugurated geology department. It was an academic life bearing the theme of his earlier research years: isolation. He was Durham’s sole rock star during its early days. And he lived it always on the edge, like a true bonafide rock star. Shortcomings brought by the department’s infancy meant Holmes had to improvise, often borrowing equipment from other sources, or assembling ragtag pieces as makeshift apparatuses. This sorry lot continued for some time that at one point Holmes could not even pay the geological society’s annual membership fee.

But the clock kept on ticking, and so did his mind.

Front page of Holmes’ famous Principles of Physical Geology ©Aberdale Boy’s Grammar School

Holmes’ last attempt to date the Earth in 1946 yielded an age of around 3-billion years. This number held on for quite some time, until a decade later when Clair Cameron Patterson arrived at the result of 4.55 billion years (which is now the accepted age of the Earth), using better equipment and meteorite samples from Canyon Diablo.

The rebel rebel days were over.

Holmes’ strident push to advocate radiometric dating as the proper method to date the Earth was vindicated. Towards the end of his career and life, his ideas were incorporated in the formal structure and content of geology as an academic field. He also proposed the first physical account of how tectonic plates move via convection. Detective Arthur Holmes’ job was done.

Youtube has made it easier for people to enjoy old (“classic”) and new rock with just a few clicks. Arthur Holmes would have probably enjoyed listening to any music he fancied while working in his dilapidated Durham laboratory (he later moved on to Edinburgh University in 1943). Or he would have dated them as was his wont. We will never know. But one thing is for sure, he will not need to wait for a Sunday to do so.



Lewis, Cherry. The dating game: one man’s search for the age of the Earth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2012

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