THOMAS C. CHAMBERLIN was an American glacial geologist and educator who, at the turn of the 20th century, challenged the generally accepted Laplacian theory that the Earth was formed by hot gases and was gradually becoming cooler. He suggested the plan-etesimal hypothesis, arguing that the planets were formed after a star passed near the Sun, pulling away material from both bodies that later condensed into the planets. Chamberlin was one of the first scientists to emphasize the role of carbon dioxide in regulating the Earth's temperature, thus anticipating the current debates on global warming. Chamberlin also founded the Journal of Geology, acted as its editor for many years, and was the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey's Pleistocene Division (1881-1904).
Chamberlin was the first geologist to demonstrate that there had been multiple Pleistocene glaciations in North America. He offered early analyses of moraines, drumlins, eskers, and boulder trains. Starting from these features, he worked out regional glacial flow patterns and calculated the outermost limits of the two last glacial advances.
Chamberlin was born on September 23, 1843. At the time of Chamberlin's birth, his family was living in Mat-toon, southern Illinois, but they soon moved north to Beloit in Wisconsin. The future scientist grew up in a religious family (his father was a Methodist minister), where education was held in high esteem. With his four brothers, Chamberlin attended a preparatory academy, and then Beloit College, where he developed a strong interest in natural science. The young Chamberlin was immediately attracted to geology, in spite of the apparent conflicts with his strong Methodist background. While studying at Beloit College, where he was an outstanding student, Chamberlin directed the church choir.
To finance his education, Chamberlin worked in country schools and, upon his graduation in 1866, he became a teacher, and later, principal in a high school near Beloit. He became a particularly popular speaker within the community, giving lectures on science and organizing field trips. In 1867, he married Alma Wilson. The couple had one son, Rollin, who also became a distinguished geologist. Chamberlin went to the University of Michigan for the academic year 1868-
69 to strengthen his overall science background and thereafter became very critical of the classical curriculum in colleges. He then went on to teach natural science at the Whitewater, Wisconsin, Normal School, and joined the Beloit faculty in 1873, where he was professor of geology, zoology, and botany.
In 1873, Chamberlin was recruited to work part time with other geologists on a comprehensive geological survey of Wisconsin, the task that marked the beginning of his career in glacial geology. In 1876, due to the reorganization of the survey, Chamberlin was appointed chief geologist and, over the next six years, he supervised the completion of the project. The resulting publication, consisting of four large volumes of the highest academic standards, brought Chamberlin to national attention and led to his appointment as head of the glacial division of the national survey in 1881.
Six years later, the board of regents of the University of Wisconsin in Madison invited Chamberlin to be president. During his tenure, Chamberlin introduced many reforms aimed at strengthening the science curriculum and recruiting outstanding faculty members. He also established the extension program, offering farmers new knowledge that could be helpful to them. He introduced seminars as a core element of teaching and started formal postgraduate study with a Ph.D. program. In 1892, Chamberlin accepted the chair of the geology department at the University of Chicago, a position that he kept for the next 26 years. As a chair, he made the department one of the world's leading institutions in the field and established the Walker Museum.
While at Chicago, Chamberlin worked with astronomer Forest R. Moulton to define the planetesimal hypothesis. Their research was published in Two Solar Families (1928). With Rollin Salisbury, he coauthored Geology (1904-06), probably the most influential American textbook of geology before World War II. At a time when single, comprehensive introductory textbooks were not common, Geology had a profound impact. In 1909 Chamberlin worked for the Rockefeller Foundation, spending five months in China to organize an aid program for the country.
Chamberlin retired in 1918. Although he is best remembered for the planetesimal theory, Chamberlin's interest in glaciation led him to question prevailing notions of a gradually cooling earth, making him an important forerunner of global warming debates. The cycles of glacial formation, growth, and retraction that he identified suggested that the Earth was warming up, rather than cooling down. To find an explanation, Chamberlin investigated climatic change, focusing on changing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
As far as methodology was concerned, Chamber-lin argued that evidence should never be accepted uncritically. Researchers should always maintain an open mind, testing several hypotheses at once. This is known as the method of multiple working hypotheses, which he pioneered in spite of a certain dogmatism that his conclusions tended to acquire later in his career. Chamberlin was awarded countless honors and prizes during. He was president of the Geological Society of America (1894-95), president of the Wisconsin (1885-86), Chicago (1897-1915), and Illinois (1907) academies of science, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1908-09), member of the National Academy of Sciences (1903), and the first Penrose Medalist of both the Society of Economic Geologists (1924) and Geological Society of America (1927). He was also a member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and received six honorary degrees. Chamberlin died on November 15, 1928, in Chicago.
SEE ALSO: Glaciers, Retreating; Glaciology; Global Warming.
BIBLIOGRApHY. R.H. Dott, Jr., "Rock Stars: Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin (1843-1928)," GSA Today (v.16/10, 2006); B.L. Railsback, "T.C. Chamberlin's 'Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses': An Encapsulation for Modern Students," Houston Geological Society Bulletin (v.47/2, 2004).
Luca Prono University of Nottingham
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