Plate Tectonics and People

Arthur Holmes

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Rock Star: Arthur Holmes

Holmes - youngHolmesHolmes - 1960

Biographical Information

Arthur Holmes was born in Britain on January 14th, 1890. His education includes the Gateshead Higher Grade School (later the Gateshead Grammar School) and the Royal College of Science (now Imperial College) where he graduated by the age of 20 in 1910. He was already published for his work as an undergraduate in radiometric dating by the age of 21. Holmes was the first person to use uranium-lead dating specifically for the purposes of dating a rock when he found the age of a Devonian rock to be 370 Ma. This proclomation was adamently rejected by the "grey beards" of the time as they were firm believers in the work of Lord Kelvin. [For a truly thorough yet succinct read on the 'Age of Earth' I recommend this Wikipedia link - of course my man Artie is mentioned!]

In 1912 as a member of the staff at Imperial College he published, at the time, a monumental book, The Age of the Earth, that gave the oldest age of Earth, to date, being 1.6 billion years. Later in life, with his colleague Bob Lawson, they would later revise the date to 3 and then 4 billion years as the dating process was refined and older rocks were discovered. In 1917, at the ripe old age of 27 he received his doctorate of science from Imperial College as well. Seven years later he was asked to be the head of the geology department at Durham University, he was originally the only member of the department at the time.

Specific contributions to the theory of plate tectonics and/or our modern view of the solid Earth

Holmes’ journey of scientific stardom began when he won a scholarship to study physics at the Royal College of Science (later Imperial College). He would eventually switch his focus from physics to geology after he took a geology course but he would use his knowledge of physics to explore the world of geology.

Holmes is most notably known for his book Principles of Physical Geology and the work that he did with the geologic time scale. An early memory of Holmes is related to the age of creation according to the bible, 4004 B.C. “I was puzzled by the odd ‘4,’” he wrote. “Why not a nice round 4000 years? And why such a very recent date? And how could anyone know?” (Lewis, 2011, p. 16). The fascination with dates would stick with him his whole career. It was his work with dating that allowed him academic notoriety and success early in life as Holmes was the first to use uranium-lead radiometric dating specifically to measure the age of a rock. His work with dating and radioactive decay would lead to his contribution to continental drift and plate tectonics.

Holmes was doing his work around the time that scientists were debating the validity and possibility of continental drift. The main issue raised by many scientists is the mechanism by which the continents could move. Holmes major contribution was the hypothesis that the radioactive decay occurring in the mantle of Earth would generate heat, and thereby convection currents that would be the means by which the continents could move. It was his passion and commitment to radiometric dating that allowed him to develop this hypothesis.

Holmes was not a dogmatic adherent of Drift who was searching for a solution to the 'mechanism' problem. Rather, he was a sound geologist, who believed that there were enormous radioactive forces present in the earth's interior which simply had to escape to the earth's surface, and who recognized that these provided a solution to the 'mechanism' problem faced by Drift.

Most impressive about Holmes is that he proposes his hypothesis at a time when continental drift was not very popular. While he believed in his idea he also recognized that his idea would need more evidence to either disprove or prove. Holmes was simply looking for a way to explain how matching rocks, fossils, mountains, climate, and glacier evidence could come to exist on two different sides of an ocean. Not only did his hypothesis provide a mechanism by which the continents could move, it also provided a potential explanation for continental rifting and mountain formation. Below is a diagram from 1928 that he used to explain his hypothesis (the top is the before picture of the convection current rifting the continental block and the bottom is the ocean that is created in between).


The paleomagnetic data of the 1950s and 1960s of the mid-ocean ridges and magnetic reversals certainly allowed more scientists to accept the idea of continental drift and plate tectonics. Holmes died in 1965, I think, with the comfort that his forty year old idea had scientific merit.

On the surface, it is easy to dismiss Holmes’ idea about convection currents being the mechanism by which the continents could drift as a ‘shot in the dark.’ However, the time required for plate tectonics to occur could only have been possible with the geologic timescale that Homes was so instrumental in developing. I would like to conclude the main body of the page with words from Holmes himself. While I think it really hit the mark for his, and the overall scientific, ideas at the time, I think this quote speaks to what science is really about, then and now.

Unfortunately, once the straightforward conception of a continuously cooling earth is abandoned, the possibilities become hard to visualize, unwieldy in their complex interrelations, and difficult to check except by the most complete details of geological history, and of the physical properties of materials under familiar conditions. Nevertheless an attempt must be made, and if mistakes are involved at first, then at least their recognition and correction in the future will mark a beginning of sound progress. (Frankel, 1978, p. 139)

Other important scientific contributions

As my luck would have it, Holmes mantle convection hypothesis is considered his “other important work.” However, as I mentioned, the time frame necessary for plate tectonics could have been unknown without his work on the geologic time scale and radioactive dating.

Other cool stuff you should know

While this is not necessarily “cool” I did find it rather interesting:

  • Holmes’ life was rocky to say the least. The scholarship funding that he received while in college was not enough to make ends meet. He ended up taking a job in Mozambique prospecting minerals in 1911. He ended up not finding any minerals of value but did end up finding a case of malaria. At one point the illness was so severe that a telegraph was sent to England falsely announcing his death. Thankfully he pulled through as he had much more science left in him.
  • Once again, he was unable to pay the bills as a researcher at Imperial College and his life encountered another avalanche. He took a job with an oil company in Burma that eventually went under and could not pay their employees. To top it all off, his son died of dysentery during the trip! He would return home to open a shop and sell eastern knick-knacks. Go figure, one of the 20th century’s most renowned scientists selling knick-knacks.
  • I don’t know what the heck this is, but it is about Holmes. Think of it as this assignment on acid.


"Arthur Holmes: Harnessing the Mechanics of Mantle Convection to the Theory of Continental Drift." American Museum of Natural History. Web. 28 Jan. 2011. <

"Arthur Holmes: Text, Images, Music, Video | Glogster." Franche's Profile | Glogster. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <>.

"Arthur Holmes." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <>.

"Bristol University | News from the University | Dating Game." Bristol University Homepage - a Place for Learning, Discovery and Enterprise. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <>.

"Complete and Updated Biography for Arthur Holmes." A Collection of the Most Interesting Biographies - Updated and Complete. Web. 26 Jan. 2011. <>.

"EGU Awards & Medals | Arthur Holmes." EGU Home. Web. 28 Jan. 2011. <

"EGU Awards & Medals | Arthur Holmes." EGU Home. Web. 29 Jan. 2011. <

"Famous Old Boys/Girls - Gateshead Grammar School, Recollections, Photos." Home - Gateshead Grammar School, Recollections, Photos. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <>.

Fortey, Richard. "My Hero Arthur Holmes by Richard Fortey | Books | The Guardian." Latest News, Comment and Reviews from the Guardian | Web. 29 Jan. 2011. <

Frankel, Henry. "Arthur Holmes and Continental Drift." The British Journal for the History of Science 11.2 (1978): 130-50. JSTOR. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <>.

"Holmes, Arthur (1890-1965): World of Earth Science." ENotes - Literature Study Guides, Lesson Plans, and More. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <>.

Lewis, Cherry L.E. "Arthur Holmes: An Ingenious Geoscientist." GSA Today Mar. 2002: 16-17. Web. 29 Jan. 2011. <>.

"Plate Tectonics." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 29 Jan. 2011. <>.

"Rocky Road: Arthur Holmes." Strange Science: The Rocky Road to Modern Paleontology and Biology. Web. 26 Jan. 2011. <>.

"A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries: Arthur Holmes." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <>.

"A Very British Paradigm Shift : Highly Allochthonous." ScienceBlogs. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <

By Mike Hardwig