A Hot Young Earth: My Answer to the Annual Edge Question

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Each year, literary agent and science salonista John Brockman poses a question about science and gets a slew of answers from scientists, writers, and other folks. This year’s question is

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

Brockman got 187 responses, totaling some 126,700 words. A book, you say! Well, if this year is like previous ones, this year’s answers will indeed become a book. But in the meantime, you can browse the answers for yourself, perhaps plucking out those of your favorite people. (Fellow Discover blogger cosmologist Sean Carroll chooses Einstein’s explanation of gravity, for example.)

I found this year’s question particularly thought-provoking. Why is it that we call an equation or a theory “beautiful”? They don’t have pretty hazel eyes. They aren’t desert landscapes. I’m not sure of the answer. Scientific explanations seem to be beautiful if they give sense to confusing complexity in a very short space. Or maybe we just like the feeling we get when we consider how our puny human brains can interpret the universe.

For a lot of physicists, the beauty of an equation seems to be a good hint that it’s probably true. But I’m always a bit suspicious of beauty as a guide to the natural world. A number of contributors selected Darwin’s theory of evolution as their favorite explanation, and there’s no doubt that’s both beautiful and true. But there have been some wonderfully beautiful accounts of the natural world that have proven awesomely wrong. I was reminded of this fact while working on a new version of my evolution textbook (this one’s for biology majors). I was re-researching how scientists first came to appreciate the vast age of our planet, and realized it was a bit more complicated than I had previously appreciated. So that’s what I chose as my answer, which I’m reprinting here in full:

A Hot Young Earth: Unquestionably Beautiful and Stunningly Wrong

Around 4.567 billion years ago, a giant cloud of dust collapsed in on itself. At the center of the cloud our Sun began to burn, while the outlying dust grains began to stick together as they orbited the new star. Within a million years, those clumps of dust had become protoplanets. Within about 50 million years, our own planet had already reached about half its current size. As more protoplanets crashed into Earth, it continued to grow. All told, it may have taken another fifty million years to reach its full size—a time during which a Mars-sized planet crashed into it, leaving behind a token of its visit: our Moon.

The formation of the Earth commands our greatest powers of imagination. It is primordially magnificent. But elegant is not the word I’d use to describe the explanation I just sketched out. Scientists did not derive it from first principles. There is no equivalent of E=mc2 that predicts how the complex violence of the early Solar System produced a watery planet that could support life.

In fact, the only reason that we now know so much about how the Earth formed is because geologists freed themselves from a seductively elegant explanation that was foisted on them 150 years ago. It was unquestionably beautiful, and stunningly wrong.

The explanation was the work of one of the greatest physicists of the nineteenth century, William Thompson (a k a Lord Kelvin). Kelvin’s accomplishments ranged from the concrete (figuring out how to lay a telegraph cable from Europe to America) to the abstract (the first and second laws of thermodynamics). Kelvin spent much of his career writing equations that could let him calculate how fast hot things got cold. Kelvin realized that he could use these equations to estimate how old the Earth is. “The mathematical theory on which these estimates are founded is very simple,” Kelvin declared when he unveiled it in 1862.

At the time, scientists generally agreed that the Earth had started out as a ball of molten rock and had been cooling ever since. Such a birth would explain why rocks are hot at the bottom of mine shafts: the surface of the Earth was the first part to cool, and ever since, the remaining heat inside the planet has been flowing out into space. Kelvin reasoned that over time, the planet should steadily grow cooler. He used his equations to calculate how long it should take for a molten sphere of rock to cool to Earth’s current temperature, with its observed rate of heat flow. His verdict was a brief 98 million years.

Geologists howled in protest. They didn’t know how old the Earth was, but they thought in billions of years, not millions. Charles Darwin—who was a geologist first and then a biologist later—estimated that it had taken 300 million years for a valley in England to erode into its current shape. The Earth itself, Darwin argued, was far older. And later, when Darwin published his theory of evolution, he took it for granted that the Earth was inconceivably old. That luxury of time provided room for evolution to work slowly and imperceptibly.

Kelvin didn’t care. His explanation was so elegant, so beautiful, so simple that it had to be right. It didn’t matter how much trouble it caused for other scientists who would ignore thermodynamics. In fact, Kelvin made even more trouble for geologists when he took another look at his equations. He decided his first estimate had been too generous. The Earth might be only 10 million years old.

It turned out that Kelvin was wrong, but not because his equations were ugly or inelegant. They were flawless. The problem lay in the model of the Earth to which Kelvins applied his equations.

The story of Kelvin’s refutation got a bit garbled in later years. Many people (myself included) have mistakenly claimed that his error stemmed from his ignorance of radioactivity. Radioactivity was only discovered in the early 1900s as physicists worked out quantum physics. The physicist Ernst Rutherford declared that the heat released as radioactive atom broke down inside the Earth kept it warmer than it would be otherwise. Thus a hot Earth did not have to be a young Earth.

It’s true that radioactivity does give off heat, but there isn’t enough inside the planet is to account for the heat flowing out of it. Instead, Kelvin’s real mistake was assuming that the Earth was just a solid ball of rock. In reality, the rock flows like syrup, its heat lifting it up towards the crust, where it cools and then sinks back into the depths once more. This stirring of the Earth is what causes earthquakes, drives old crust down into the depths of the planet, and creates fresh crust at ocean ridges. It also drives heat up into the crust at a much greater rate than Kelvin envisioned.

That’s not to say that radioactivity didn’t have its own part to play in showing that Kelvin was wrong. Physicists realized that the tick-tock of radioactive decay created a clock that they could use to estimate the age of rocks with exquisite precision. Thus we can now say that the Earth is not just billions of years old, but 4.567 billion.

Elegance unquestionably plays a big part in the advancement of science. The mathematical simplicity of quantum physics is lovely to behold. But in the hands of geologists, quantum physics has brought to light the glorious, messy, and very inelegant history of our planet.

[Post-script: Thanks to responses from readers, I can see how this essay is confusing. I added some passages from the papers I cite below down in the comment thread, which I hope can clear things up a bit.]

[Update: For an up-to-date review of the age and formation of the Earth, see this paper [abstract, free pdf] For a great look at Kelvin’s work, see this piece in American Scientist or the more technical paper on which it was based (free pdf).]

[Image: Photo by Hawaiian Sea – http://flic.kr/p/8AyKnC via Creative Commons]