Continental Drift: A Revolutionary Principle That Was As soon as Thought of Pseudoscience
Such was the destiny of Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), a German scientist who lived and died with the unwavering conviction that the bottom we stand upon just isn’t as strong because it appears. He was proper, in fact. Geologists as we speak settle for the fundamentals of his concept of continental drift — albeit within the extra refined context of plate tectonics — as a reality of nature: Our planet’s configuration of land and ocean was totally different hundreds of thousands of years in the past, and will likely be totally different hundreds of thousands of years from now.
The specialists of Wegener’s personal time, nonetheless, dismissed the speculation as pseudoscience and recognized him with “transferring crust illness and wandering pole plague.” They did finally be part of him on the appropriate aspect of historical past, after a half-century’s value of efforts to discredit his work and disparage his character. However as he waited for the remainder of the world to embrace his concepts, it might nicely have felt like standing on the Florida coast and watching the horizon for the strategy of Africa.
An Outdoors Perspective
The person who toppled the edifice of geological information wasn’t even a geologist. A educated astronomer, sure; a daring and famend explorer, sure; an authority on Earth sciences, no. Wegener was a meteorologist, higher identified for holding the world document for the longest hot-air balloon flight somewhat than rock-related analysis.
(Credit score: Public Area/Wikimedia Commons)
Undoubtedly, his lack of credentials put him at odds with institution lecturers from the beginning, however their scorn got here additionally from a agency perception that the continents had at all times stood in kind of the identical place. Many individuals had made the obvious statement that the continents match collectively like puzzle items (most clearly alongside the coasts of South America and Africa), however the dogma of continental permanence ran so deep that Wegener was the primary to significantly think about its logical conclusion: At some distant time, they should have been joined.
When he first seen this jigsaw match on a world atlas, across the Christmas of 1910, he too discovered it “inconceivable,” he wrote. However the subsequent fall he discovered that many fossils on both aspect of the Atlantic, in West Africa and Brazil, have been almost similar. He additionally discovered that to account for this, his contemporaries steered vegetation and animals had crossed historic land bridges which had since sunk into the oceans. Wegener started to suppose his speculation won’t be inconceivable, in any case.
Learn extra: Plate Tectonics: The Sluggish Dance of Our Planet’s Crust
Over the following few months, as he constructed his case, he had no qualms about ditching the established order. A month earlier than he publicly introduced his concept, in December 1912, he wrote to his mentor and future father-in-law, Wladimir Koppen: If the proof favored continental drift, he requested, “why ought to we hesitate to toss the previous views overboard? Why ought to this concept be held again for ten and even thirty years?”
In hindsight, it’s clear these are the phrases of an idealist. Dispassionate objectivity is the acknowledged objective of science, true — however the response to Wegener’s proposal is a stark reminder that flesh-and-blood scientists don’t at all times verify their feelings on the laboratory door.
The Puzzle Comes Collectively
After publishing his first papers on the topic — which have been largely ignored — in 1912, Wegener dropped his geological investigation for some time. He joined an expedition to Greenland, returned and married Else Koppen, had a primary youngster, Hilde, and was referred to as to energetic obligation in Belgium at the beginning of World Struggle I.
Later, as he recovered from battle wounds, he formulated his concepts in a e-book, The Origin of Continents and Oceans, revealed in 1915. Its premise was that the Earth’s crust consisted of two layers, with the higher layer drifting continually alongside the decrease, just like the icebergs he’d seen floating throughout the Arctic seas. Greater than 250 million years in the past, he wrote, the continents of as we speak fashioned a single, huge landmass which he named Pangaea (Historical Greek for “all-Earth”). Surrounding this supercontinent was a superocean, Panthalassa (“all-sea”).
The proof to help this surprising argument got here — unusually, in that period of strict specialization — from in all places: geology, geophysics, biology, paleontology, paleoclimatology and past. This oft-denounced multidisciplinary technique was essential to Wegener’s discovery. “It’s only by combing the data furnished by all of the Earth sciences,” he wrote, “that we will hope to find out ‘reality’ right here.”
Wegener discovered a number of the strongest help for continental drift — which he really referred to as continental displacement — within the hanging similarity between many rock formations now separated by oceans. “It’s simply as if we have been to refit the torn items of a newspaper by matching their edges after which verify whether or not the traces of print run easily throughout,” he wrote. On the organic aspect, he was impressed by the resemblance not solely of marsupials but additionally of the parasites that infect them, in each Australia and South America.
(Credit score: Public Area/Wikimedia Commons)
He knew he had mustered solely oblique proof, Lisa Yount writes within the biography, Alfred Wegener: Creator of the Continental Drift Principle. Nonetheless, he “believed that the amount and number of his proof have been so nice that they amounted to proof.”
‘Utter, Damned Rot’
The geologists of the world emphatically disagreed. After a few ignored editions and an English translation, Wegener’s e-book sparked an mental firestorm within the Twenties. The Austrian paleoclimatologist Fritz Kerner von Marilaun spoke of Wegener’s “delirious ravings,” whereas the British geologist Philip Lake stated at a gathering of the Royal Geographical Society that Wegener was “not in search of reality; he’s advocating a trigger and is blind to each proven fact that tells towards it.”
The People — who had been at struggle with Wegener’s homeland only a few years earlier — have been particularly hostile. An honest abstract of their response got here from William Berryman Scott, president of the American Philosophical Society, who bluntly declared the speculation “utter, damned rot.”
Throughout a 1926 convention in New York Metropolis to debate continental drift, the main specialists attacked its each line of proof. Lots of their critiques have been legitimate — particularly concerning the unconvincing suggestion that the mechanism for drift could be both centrifugal drive from the Earth’s rotation or tidal pull on the planet’s crust — however, Yount writes, “they need to not have been sufficient to make Earth scientists discard Wegener’s concept fully.”
Learn extra: The Subsequent Pangea: What Earth’s Future Supercontinent Will Look Like
Nonetheless, they did, and their ridicule scared away most would-be pursuers of continental drift. It’s plain to see what was at stake for these males — the speculation undermined the inspiration of a science they’d devoted their lives to. “If we’re to consider Wegener’s speculation,” wrote Rollin Chamberlin, a outstanding geologist on the College of Chicago, “we should neglect all the things which has been discovered within the final 70 years and begin once more.”
Even within the controversy of these early days, although, the primary traces of acceptance have been seen. “We’re discussing this speculation as a result of we want him to be proper,” stated George William Lamplugh on the Royal Geographical Society assembly, noting that it might resolve many long-standing issues for geology. “The underlying thought might but bear higher fruit.”
However that fruit wanted proponents daring sufficient to domesticate it, and people have been scarce. As British geologist Richard Dixon Oldham put it on the time, “it was greater than any man who valued his status for scientific sanity must enterprise to advocate something like this concept.”
Wegener (left) and Rasmus Villumsen in Greenland, 1930. (Credit score: Public Area/Wikimedia Commons)
Dying and Recognition
Perhaps Wegener wasn’t apprehensive about his status. Perhaps he was assured posterity would restore it. Both means, he stored looking, answering the barrage of criticism and censure with ever extra refined proof. However by 1929, when he revealed the fourth and ultimate version of his e-book, it nonetheless suffered from a deadly flaw: Compelling as his wild mix of proof was, it couldn’t clarify what triggered the Earth’s crust to maneuver.
The following yr, Wegener launched into his final journey: a climate analysis expedition on Greenland’s distant, barren ice sheet. He spent the summer time and fall hauling provides by dogsled to the analysis station 250 miles inland, however as winter drew close to, the locals he had employed abandoned him. With a band diminished to solely two males, he made a ultimate supply of simply sufficient meals and gasoline to maintain the station’s crew alive till spring. On Nov. 1, 1930, he left for the coast. The temperature had dropped under -60 levels Fahrenheit.
Alongside the best way he died, most likely from a coronary heart assault. Months later, when a search social gathering discovered his physique, one member reported his face appeared “relaxed, peaceable, nearly smiling.” Wegener was honored as an important meteorologist and Arctic explorer — not because the architect of an important geological concept.
On that entrance, it might take three extra a long time for the world to catch up. As late as 1958, a e-book rejecting continental drift included a foreword by Albert Einstein. Then, instantly, in one in all science’s nice “I advised you so” moments, the discoveries of seafloor spreading and the fixed rumbling and grinding of colossal tectonic plates lastly introduced continental drift into the mainstream.
Wegener didn’t get all the things proper. It’s not the continents that drift, per se, however somewhat the slabs of crust, or lithosphere, to which they’re connected. And the drive driving this drift isn’t centrifugal or tidal, however convective — the Earth’s inside warmth retains these slabs in movement. However this concept of plate tectonics, one of many nice revolutions in trendy science, owes its existence to Wegener’s personal artistic concept and his willingness to think about past the bounds of accepted knowledge. Continental drift, writes British geologist Anthony Hallam, “stands not merely as a forerunner of the idea that now prevails however as its true ancestor.”