Clarence King (1842-1901) was the first director of the US Geological Survey and played an instrumental role during the major controversy at the end of the nineteenth century over the age of the Earth. Biologists who were convinced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution knew that for the unguided process of natural selection to work required long times and the absolute minimum age that they needed was 100 million years, though even that was stretching things. But physicists, led by Lord Kelvin, were pushing for a younger age based on their models of the Earth as a once-hot cooling body. (The discovery by Pierre Curie that the decay of radium produced prodigious amounts of heat and thus invalidated all the cooling models did not occur until 1903.) Geologists were in the middle since their models based on geological processes had parameters that were hugely variable and thus could not be the arbiter. But King pushed them over to the physicists’ side.
In the manuscript of my forthcoming book THE GREAT PARADOX OF SCIENCE: Why its theories work so well without being true which is under review right now (it’s been awhile since I gave a shameless plug for it), I discussed this three-way struggle and King’s role in it. Here is the passage.
By around 1880, an uneasy truce seemed to have been drawn amongst the physics, geology, and biology research communities around a value of a 100 million year old Earth. But that tentative consensus did not last long. Other scientists came along who followed up on Kelvin’s methods using more refined calculations and newer estimates for the parameters involved, and they arrived at even shorter ages of 40 million and then 20 million years for the age of the Earth. Most important amongst these was an 1893 calculation by Clarence King, the first director of the US Geological Survey who, again basically using Kelvin’s thermal methods, arrived at a figure of 24 million years. Kelvin himself, in a paper in 1897 towards the end of his long and illustrious career, stated his conclusion that the Earth was between 20 and 40 million years old, with King’s value of 24 million being the most likely to be correct. What made Kelvin’s conclusions about his new lower values carry great weight was that he had also done calculations for the age of the Sun and found that the gravitational collapse of the Sun would only be able to provide enough energy to warm the Earth for about 20 million years. Since the sedimentation process used by geologists as one of their dating methods for the Earth depended on the warmth of the Sun, this set a more stringent limit on the age of the Earth than even Kelvin’s terrestrial calculations.
So I was intrigued to discover a couple of days ago an extraordinary detail about King’s personal life.
King spent his last thirteen years leading a double life. In 1887 or 1888, he met and fell in love with Ada Copeland, an African-American nursemaid (and former slave) from Georgia, who had moved to New York City in the mid-1880s. As miscegenation was strongly discouraged in the nineteenth century (and illegal in many places), King hid his identity from Copeland. Despite his blue eyes and fair complexion, King convinced Copeland that he was an African-American Pullman porter named James Todd. The two entered into a common law marriage in 1888. Throughout the marriage, King never revealed his true identity to Ada, pretending to be Todd, a black railroad worker, when at home, and continuing to work as King, a white geologist, when in the field. Their union produced five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Their two daughters married white men; their two sons served classified as blacks during World War I. King finally revealed his true identity to Copeland in a letter he wrote to her while on his deathbed in Arizona. King’s friends John Hay and Henry Adams supplied funds for the support of Ada and her family after his death.
There are many instances of black people passing as white. I don’t know of any white people passing as black because, after all, being black carried huge economic and social costs in those days and still does to a lesser extent so there is no obvious reason to do so. But King managed to be white by day and black by night, so to speak, for over a decade and that was a real tour de force, though I think his wife must have at least suspected the truth.