I think that this is a bit more murky than that. A little googling suggests that he paid off a “gentleman’s bet” about the importance of radioactivity in Earth’s geology. No public acknowledgement, though. Also that radiometric dating of rocks was developed in 1907, the same year that he died. (I started googling this because my first impression was that there wouldn’t have been any overlap with this stuff at all, but I guess I wasn’t right.)
At any rate, it seems more like the standard science progressing one funeral at a time than idiocy.
You’re right - it is a bit more complex than I made out. In my defence ( ) Kelvin should have admitted his theory was bust when Ernest Rutherford spoke about radioactivity representing a new source of energy inside the Earth at the Royal Institution in 1904 - he was in the audience!
The first radioactive dating was done in 1905 by Bertram Boltwood under Rutherford’s supervision. Although they weren’t officially published in the scientific literature, their existence was well-known in the community. As you said, the first official paper on the subject was published by Boltwood in 1907.
Anyway, with the exception of geology, Kelvin was a giant who helped create the modern world. As a geologist though - idiot.
In defense of Lord Kelvin, geologists at the time were claiming the earth was infinitely old – a position which has proved more useful to understanding it, but which is in fact much more wrong, and even impossible for reasons Kelvin would have understood better than anyone. It seems like one of those arguments where nobody is listening properly.
It is also not really true that radioactivity fixes his age estimate for the earth (although it helps for the sun). The thing that does is that it does not cool as a solid object but through convection, which was proposed at the time but overlooked until much later.
another related syndrome where very talented and motivated people try to stretch too far and reveal they aren’t good at everything. Im thinking Walt Disney’s live action films (i guess some of them are campy fun but a lot are really bad), Jim henson’s more serious and creepy TV shows at the end of his life. George Lucas having some super amazing early films and then making really awful stuff like howard the duck and the ewok TV shows. I read Nicola tesla’s autobiography and although he really was super intellegent, at a certain point he seemed to start to believe he could do ridiculous and impossible things just because earlier inventions had been successful. I haven’t fully formed this thought and maybe the above people arent totally at fault for their flops, but maybe you can see where I’m going. Its like when you get used to yes men and fans telling you you cant do wrong and you start believing your own myth…
this is a little different from cases like Musk where even those early successes owe much to family fortune and being able to pay people around you to make things happen…
Is there a similar list out there for people that society had assumed were intellectual lightweights based on their outward appearances, chosen careers and/or misogyny but turned out to be much smarter than many people realized? Here’s a couple names that I would propose:
Hedy Lamarr (a famous actress who made a number of significant inventions and is sometimes considered to be the mother of wi-fi)
Suzanne Somers (actress known for playing a ditzy blonde but went on to make millions as a businesswoman by creating the Thighmaster empire)
Snoop Dogg (A rapper who has has a few run-ins with the law, but reportedly has an IQ of 147, and a number of successful business ventures in a variety of realms)
I’d still like to distinguish between being wrong, even being wrong by many orders of magnitude in this case, and being an idiot. We are talking about someone in their late 70s/early 80s holding on to one of his ideas for a few years past the first result that would prove him wrong. We’ll probably all end up as that kind of idiot eventually.
I feel like I’m that kind of idiot at least once a week, if I’m being kind to myself. Fortunately, very few people write my foolishness down.
The known examples of Midgley’s moral bankruptcy are staggering. He did a press conference where he poured tetraethyl lead over his hands and sniffed the fumes, declaring he could do this every day without harm, and afterwards secretly flew to Europe for lead poisoning treatment. He supported Kehoe’s publication of “normal” levels of lead exposure for children and adults, which were based on knowingly misrepresenting the lead exposure of test populations. I would be completely unsurprised if mass graves of torture victims were discovered in the backyards of all Midgley’s former residences. Thank all the odd gods of the galaxy for Clair Patterson!