The Dating Game: One Man’s Search for the Age of the Earth
by Cherry Lewis
Cambridge University Press, 2000
by Tas Walker
I enjoyed Cherry Lewis’s fascinating biography of Arthur Holmes (1890–1965), the English geologist famous for his work on radioactive dating and the age of the earth. It traces how ideas about the age of the earth changed over one man’s lifetime. Dr Lewis is a geologist/geochemist, currently working as Research Communications Manager at Bristol University, and is Secretary of the History of Geology Group (HOGG) there.
Holmes was ‘the only child of staunchly Methodist parents’ (p. 7) and he ‘well remembered his parents’ Bible, and the magic fascination of the date of Creation, 4004 BC’ (p. 27). In later years Holmes reminisced ‘that the Earth has grown older much more rapidly than I have—from about six thousand years when I was ten, to four or five billion years by the time I reached sixty’. I would like to learn more about Holmes’ own reasons for his apostasy from his Christian heritage, because his story sadly is all too common.
A short, interesting book, The Dating Game is filled with photos and human interest. Lewis has researched her topic thoroughly, and quotes widely from diaries and letters. Clearly, Holmes was a perceptive and independent thinker, a dynamic lecturer and diligent worker.
Is it really a game?
Those who think that science has proved the earth is billions of years old should find this book disturbing. Lewis clearly shows that the quest for the age of the earth is not objective science but a subjective, arbitrary and erratic pursuit.
Even her name for the book illustrates that point. Some reviewers must have urged her to use a different title, but what could be more fitting than The Dating Game? Lewis refused to change it, but apologized to any readers who found the book ‘on the “Romance” shelves’ (p. 242).
My dictionary defines ‘game’ as ‘a contest for amusement in the form of a trial of chance, skill or endurance according to a set of rules’. She vividly paints the characters of the players in the ‘dating game’, and tracks the progress of the score for a hundred years. To the uninitiated, a history like hers is one of the best ways to understand a subject.
In a game, the score is determined, not by impersonal scientific measurement, but by the strength, skill and creativity of the players. The rules of play are not laws of nature, but arbitrarily agreed by the players, and sometimes changed during play. We see this acutely demonstrated in the events she describes.1
Holmes’ interest in the game was aroused in his teens one summer holiday. This is when the great physicist William Thomson (Lord Kelvin, 1824–1907) instigated the dating game in The Times. Lewis described how Arthur and his friend ‘were on the edge of their seats with the excitement of it all, for not only did they become familiar with all the arguments, they also got to know all the big names in science at that time—William Ramsay, Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Soddy and Robert Strutt’ (p. 12). Watching The Times exchange influenced Holmes to take up the sport.
The Kelvin affair
Holmes began his career at a most interesting time, as Lewis describes. For forty years Lord Kelvin had completely demolished all opposition. But by the early 1900s, Kelvin was gradually losing his dominance. The upcoming generation had a new weapon and were about to dislodge him. Holmes would soon be a key player….
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