Arthur Holmes around age 22
14 January 1890|
Gateshead, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
|Died||20 September 1965
London, United Kingdom
|Institutions||Durham University (1924–1942),
University of Edinburgh (1943–1956)
|Alma mater||Imperial College London|
|Notable awards||Murchison Medal (1940)
Wollaston Medal (1956)
Penrose Medal (1956)
Vetlesen Prize (1964)
Arthur Holmes FRS (14 January 1890 – 20 September 1965) was a British geologist who made two major contributions to the understanding of geology. He pioneered the use of radioactive dating of minerals and was the first earth scientist to grasp the mechanical and thermal implications of mantle convection, which led eventually to the acceptance of plate tectonics.
Education and early life
As a child he lived in Low Fell, Gateshead and attended the Gateshead Higher Grade School (later Gateshead Grammar School). At 17, he enrolled to study physics at the Royal College of Science (now Imperial College London), but took a course in geology in his second year which settled his future, against the advice of his tutors. Surviving on a scholarship of £60/year was difficult and on graduating he took a job prospecting for minerals in Mozambique. After six months, with no discoveries, he became so ill with malaria that a notice of his death was posted home. However he recovered enough to catch the boat home and became a demonstrator at Imperial College.
He obtained his doctorate (of Science) in 1917 and in 1920 joined an oil company in Burma as chief geologist. The company failed, and he returned to England penniless in 1924. He had been accompanied in Burma by his three-year-old son, who contracted dysentery and died shortly before Holmes's departure.
Age of the earth
Holmes was a pioneer of geochronology, and performed the first accurate uranium-lead radiometric dating (specifically designed to measure the age of a rock) while an undergraduate in London, assigning an age of 370 Ma to a Devonian rock from Norway, improving on the work of Boltwood who published nothing more on the subject. This result was published in 1911, after his graduation in 1910.
1912 saw Holmes on the staff of Imperial College, publishing his famous book The Age of the Earth in 1913 in which he argued strongly for radioactive methods compared with methods based on geological sedimentation or cooling of the earth (many people still clung to Lord Kelvin's calculations of less than 100 Ma). He estimated the oldest Archean rocks to be 1,600 Ma, but did not speculate about the Earth's age. By this time the discovery of isotopes had complicated the calculations and he spent the next years grappling with these. His promotion of the theory over the next decades he earned the nickname of Father of modern geochronology. By 1927 he had revised this figure to 3,000 Ma and in the 1940s to 4,500±100 Ma, based on measurements of the relative abundance of uranium isotopes by Alfred O. C. Nier. The general method is now known as the Holmes-Houterman model after Fritz Houtermans who published in the same year, 1946.
In 1924 he was appointed to the newly created post of reader in geology at Durham University. Eighteen years later his achievements were recognised, when he became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1942. In the following year he was appointed to the chair of geology at the University of Edinburgh, which he held until retirement in 1956. In 1944 he published the first edition of his Principles of Physical Geology which became a standard text-book in the UK and elsewhere.
Holmes championed the theory of continental drift promoted by Alfred Wegener at a time when it was deeply unfashionable with his more conservative peers. One problem with the theory lay in the mechanism of movement, and Holmes proposed that Earth's mantle contained convection cells that dissipated radioactive heat and moved the crust at the surface. His Principles of Physical Geology ended with a chapter on continental drift. Part of the model was the origin of the seafloor spreading concept.
Honours and awards
A crater on Mars has been named in his honour.
- The age of the earth 1913, Harper & Brothers, 2nd edition 1927, 3rd edition 1937.
- The nomenclature of petrology, with references to selected literature. Thos Murby, London, van Nostrand, New York, 1920, 2nd edition 1928.
- Petrographic methods and calculations with some examples of results achieved Thos Murby, London, 1921 2nd edition 1930.
- Radioactivity and Earth Movements, Trans Geological Soc, Glasgow, vol 18, pp 559–606. pdf
- Principles of Physical Geology 1944, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 2nd edition 1965, 3rd edition (with Doris Holmes) 1978, 4th edition (with Donald Duff) 1993.
- The Phanerozoic time-scale; a symposium dedicated to Professor Arthur Holmes Geological Society, London, 1964.
- Dunham, K. C. (1966). "Arthur Holmes 1890-1965". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 12: 290–226. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1966.0013.
- Edmond A. Mathez, ed. (2000), EARTH: INSIDE AND OUT, New Press, retrieved 5 February 2013
- "Holmes, Arthur". The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/33951.
- Commemorative Plaques in Gateshead Borough
- Lewis, Cherry L. E., Arthur Holmes: An Ingenious Geoscientist (PDF), retrieved 5 February 2013
- Doris Reynolds, retrieved 5 February 2013
- Holmes, A. (1911). "The Association of Lead with Uranium in Rock-Minerals, and Its Application to the Measurement of Geological Time". Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 85 (578): 248. Bibcode:1911RSPSA..85..248H. doi:10.1098/rspa.1911.0036.
- Holmes, Arthur (1913), The Age of the Earth, London: Harper, p. 18
- The Arthur Holmes Geological Society, University of Durham, retrieved 3 February 2013
- Dalrymple, G. Brent (2004), Ancient Earth, Ancient Skies: The Age of Earth and Its Cosmic Surroundings, Stanford University Press, p. 52 Oddly Dalrymple doesn't seem to have read Holmes's 1913 edition.
- Reynolds, John H., Alfred Otto Carl Nier
- Dalrymple 2004, p. 156
- Holmes, Arthur (1944), Principles of Physical Geology (1 ed.), Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson & Sons, ISBN 0-17-448020-2
- Wessel, P.; Müller, R. D. (2007), "Plate Tectonics", Treatise on Geophysics 6, Elsevier, pp. 49–98
- Vine, F. J. (1966). "Spreading of the Ocean Floor: New Evidence". Science 154 (3755): 1405–1415. Bibcode:1966Sci...154.1405V. doi:10.1126/science.154.3755.1405. PMID 17821553.
- Lewis, Cherry (2000), The Dating Game: One Man's Search for the Age of the Earth, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-89312-7
- Geological Society of America: short biography, 
- Another short biography
- Arthur Holmes Geological Society
- Works by or about Arthur Holmes in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
WorldCatVIAF: 44391874LCCN: n50032679ISNI: 0000 0000 8377 7499GND: 122915178BNF: cb12441329r (data)NDL: 00443650 Authority control