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Four Revolutions in the Earth SciencesFrom Heresy to Truth$
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James Powell

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780231164481

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231164481.001.0001

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A Great Mistake Has Been Made

A Great Mistake Has Been Made

Chapter:
(p.9) A Great Mistake Has Been Made
Source:
Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences
Author(s):

James Lawrence Powell

Publisher:
Columbia University Press
DOI:10.7312/columbia/9780231164481.003.0002

This chapter examines scientific ideas that led to the theory of deep time, with particular emphasis on the work of William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin. Kelvin used the laws of physics to reject Charles Lyell's theory of uniformitarianism to explain an eternal, unchanging Earth. The first law of thermodynamics holds that in any process, energy in the form of heat and work is conserved. The second law can be stated simply as: heat flows spontaneously from hotter to colder places, never the opposite. In describing geologic time as infinite and the Earth as unchanging, Lyell claimed that the Earth is a perpetual-motion machine, one that can not only win the energy battle but go on doing so forever. But the first and second laws of thermodynamics prove that such a machine is impossible. According to Kelvin, Lyell's theory “violates the principles of natural philosophy.” This chapter considers Kelvin's argument about the age of the Earth and how he pushed geology toward the twentieth century.

Keywords:   deep time, William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, Charles Lyell, uniformitarianism, Earth, physics, laws of thermodynamics, geologic time, geology

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