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Thomas C. Chamberlin

A prominent figure in American geological circles, Chamberlin maintained an extensive correspondence with colleagues in academic institutions and in the U.S. Geological Survey and other federal agencies.



 Notes from Chamerlin's course," Autumn Quarter, 1896.

"A Course in Working Methods," Autumn Quarter, 1896.

Some of Chamberlin's students achieved eminence in their own right. J. Paul Goode, compiler of these notes from Chamberlin's course in methodology, made his reputation as a cartographer and author of the ubiquitous Goode's Atlas.


Thomas C. Chamberlin | Geology

At the end of the nineteenth century, most scientists accepted the Laplacian theory that the earth was a body formed from hot gases and was steadily growing cooler. This theory was effectively challenged, not by astronomers peering into the heavens, but largely through the efforts of a geologist, Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin, who looked into the earth itself for his clues.

Leaving the presidency of the University of Wisconsin in 1892, Chamberlin came to Chicago to head the new university's Department of Geology and within a few years to establish the Walker Museum. He brought immediate recognition and prestige through his teaching and research, establishing and editing the Journal of Geology and contributing papers to it until late in life.

Early interests in glaciation and landforms led Chamberlin to broader questions. The clearly delineated cycles of glacial formation, growth, and retraction he identified contradicted prevailing notions of a gradually cooling earth. Seeking explanation, Chamberlin turned to an investigation of climatic change, focusing on changing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. His studies produced questions about the origins of the earth and the solar system itself. Chamberlin theorized that planetary growth occurred through the accretion of planetoidal particles and smaller bodies. A star passed so closely to the sun that material was torn from one or both of the bodies, producing the material floating through what is now the solar system. Chamberlin relied heavily on other scholars at the University for the specialized knowledge in mathematics and astronomy he needed to construct his theory. His colleague Forest R. Moulton, a brilliant mathematician, calculated the planetary forces at work. Astronomers at Yerkes Observatory, turning their telescopes on distant celestial objects, confirmed Chamberlin's theories and contributed to the collapse of the Laplacian hypothesis.

Chamberlin also challenged the work of Lord Kelvin, who had postulated that the earth was far younger than the billions of years claimed by geologists. Chamberlin attacked Kelvin's assumption that after only a few million years the earth would have become a frozen wasteland and went on to argue that atomic structures of an unknown type could conceivably form the basis for the energy derived from the sun.

Although Chamberlin made his own theoretical errors, his approach seldom varied. For him, the scientific method required that evidence never be accepted uncritically, that several hypotheses be tested at once, and that the investigator always maintain an open mind. Chamberlin viewed the natural world as an organic entity. While not religious in an orthodox sense, he found order and even a sense of purpose in the world he observed and studied. Subtle themes of growth, relationship, and direction recur throughout his work and thought.

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