Holmes was heroic as much for the obstacles he overcame as for the results he achieved. By the 1920s, when Holmes was in the prime of his career, geology had slipped out of fashion—physics was the new excitement of the age—and had become severely underfunded, particularly in Britain, its spiritual birthplace. At Durham University, Holmes was for many years the entire geology department. Often he had to borrow or patch together equipment in order to pursue his radiometric dating of rocks. At one point, his calculations were effectively held up for a year while he waited for the university to provide him with a simple adding machine.
Occasionally, he had to drop out of academic life altogether to earn enough to support his family—for a time he ran a curio shop in Newcastle upon Tyne—and sometimes he could not even afford the £5 annual membership fee for the Geological Society.
The technique Holmes used in his work was theoretically straightforward and arose directly from the process, first observed by Ernest Rutherford in 1904, in which some atoms decay from one element into another at a rate predictable enough that you can use them as clocks. If you know how long it takes for potassium-40 to become argon-40, and you measure the amounts of each in a sample, you can work out how old a material is. Holmes's contribution was to measure the decay rate of uranium into lead to calculate the age of rocks, and thus—he hoped—of the Earth.