On 5 December 1995, Clair Cameron Patterson (1922–1995) passed away at Sonoma County, CA.
He was a geochemist known for his work using uranium-led (₂₃₈U → ₂₀₆Pb) and led-led (₂₀₆Pb → ₂₀₄Pb) radiometric dating to determine the age of the earth. Using the mass spectrometer at the Argonne National Laboratory, he studied an isolated iron-meteorite, collecting data on the abundance of its lead isotopes. This lead to his 1956 publication ‘Age of Meteorites and the Earth’, in which he hypothesized that the true age of the solar system was 4.550Gy ± 70My.
From an interview at Caltech.edu: “[M]y religious background was that my family belonged to what was called the Unitarian Universalist Church. It’s sort of a liberal-type Christian church. My grandfather founded the church in Michellville that we went to. On Sunday I’d get up real early and go on cold winter mornings to build a fire to warm up the church. [Laughter] My mother was a big wheel in that church. And the minister used to tell me a lot of things—philosophy and all that sort of stuff.”
Although his faith lapsed later in life, he did note his indebtedness to religious thought. From his National Academy of Sciences biography:
“Patterson’s reactions on being the first person to know the age of the Earth are interesting and worthy of note. He wrote, ‘True scientific discovery renders the brain incapable at such moments of shouting vigorously to the world “Look at what I’ve done! Now I will reap the benefits of recognition and wealth.” Instead such discovery instinctively forces the brain to thunder “We did it” in a voice no one else can hear, within its sacred, but lonely, chapel of scientific thought’.
“There ‘we’ refers to what Patterson calls ‘the generations-old community of scientific minds’. From my observations, he lived that ethic. To him it must have been an exercise in improving the state of the ‘community of scientific minds.’ His attitude recalls the remark of Newton: ‘If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants’.”
—“Clair Cameron Patterson.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
— Cohen, Shirley K. “Interview with Clair C. Patterson (1922-1995).” Archives California Institute of Technology. March 1995. 5-6, 9.
— Tilton, George R. “Clair Cameron Patterson (1922-1995).” (Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 1998), 8. Image: National Academy Press.