Share

Oops! The 5 Greatest Scientific Blunders

Clara Moskowitz
Published: May 28, 2013

Kelvin's Earth Age Estimate

flickr photo, user tom clearwood

In the 19th century, Sir William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, was the first person to use physics to calculate the ages of the Earth and sun. Though he estimated these bodies were about 50 times younger than we now think they are, the calculations themselves were breakthroughs. [50 Amazing Facts About Planet Earth]

Lord Kelvin based his calculation on the idea that Earth began as a hot, molten ball, and has slowly cooled over time. He attempted to calculate how long it would have taken for our planet to get to its current temperature gradient. His numbers were off partly because scientists had not yet discovered radioactivity, so he couldn't include it in his calculation. Radioactive elements in Earth, such as uranium and thorium, are an additional source of heating inside our planet.

But Livio says this wasn't Kelvin's biggest blunder — even if he had included radioactivity, his Earth age estimate would have remained nearly the same. Rather, Kelvin made the larger mistake of ignoring the possibility that unknown mechanisms might have transported heat throughout Earth.

"He assumed that heat is transported with precisely the same efficiency throughout the entire depth of the Earth," Livio said. Even after others suggested that heat could be transported more efficiently deep inside Earth, Lord Kelvin dismissed the possibility. "Kelvin was used to being right far too many times. It was pointed out to him but he never really accepted it."


Featured Blogs

People's Climate March Brings 311,000 to New York City

By Dr. Jeff Masters
September 22, 2014

The largest demonstration supporting climate change action in world history hit the streets of New York City yesterday, when the People's Climate March brought a crowd of 311,000 participants to Manhattan--more than triple pre-march estimates of 100,000.

Incredible Rainstorm in Southern France

By Christopher C. Burt
September 19, 2014

Torrential rainfall Tuesday through Thursday morning (September 16-18) in the Languedoc Region of southern France has resulted in flooding that has killed at least four people with two others still missing. The rainfall rates during the storm were phenomenal.

Live Blog: Tracking Hurricane Arthur as it Approaches North Carolina Coast

By Shaun Tanner
July 3, 2014

This is a live blog set up to provide the latest coverage on Hurricane Arthur as it threatens the North Carolina Coast. Check back often to see what the latest is with Arthur. The most recent updates are at the top.

Tropical Terminology

By Stu Ostro
June 30, 2014

Here is some basic, fundamental terminology related to tropical cyclones. Rather than a comprehensive and/or technical glossary, this represents the essence of the meaning & importance of some key, frequently used terms.

2013-14 - An Interesting Winter From A to Z

By Tom Niziol
May 15, 2014

It was a very interesting winter across a good part of the nation from the Rockies through the Plains to the Northeast. Let's break down the most significant winter storms on a month by month basis.

What the 5th IPCC Assessment Doesn't Include

By Angela Fritz
September 27, 2013

Melting permafrost has the potential to release an additional 1.5 trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, and could increase our global average temperature by 1.5°F in addition to our day-to-day human emissions. However, this effect is not included in the IPCC report issued Friday morning, which means the estimates of how Earth's climate will change are likely on the conservative side.