Continental Drift: A Revolutionary Theory That Was Once Considered Pseudoscience

Scientific view shifts in the similar way continents do — pretty, pretty slowly and gradually.

Scientific view shifts in the similar way continents do — pretty, pretty slowly and gradually. From time to time the transform is so lengthy coming that the creator of a new theory doesn’t dwell to see his function vindicated. From time to time he freezes to dying, on an expedition in an Arctic wasteland, many years prior to his friends lastly figure out him as a visionary.

This sort of was the fate of Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), a German scientist who lived and died with the unwavering conviction that the floor we stand upon is not as reliable as it looks. He was correct, of study course. Geologists currently settle for the fundamentals of his theory of continental drift — albeit in the additional refined context of plate tectonics — as a truth of character: Our planet’s configuration of land and ocean was different hundreds of thousands of several years ago, and will be different hundreds of thousands of several years from now.

The experts of Wegener’s personal time, nevertheless, dismissed the theory as pseudoscience and identified him with “moving crust disorder and wandering pole plague.” They did finally join him on the correct side of record, immediately after a 50 percent-century’s worthy of of efforts to discredit his function and disparage his character. But as he waited for the rest of the earth to embrace his concepts, it may perfectly have felt like standing on the Florida coast and observing the horizon for the method of Africa. 

An Outside Perspective

The male who toppled the edifice of geological information wasn’t even a geologist. A properly trained astronomer, sure a daring and renowned explorer, sure an authority on Earth sciences, no. Wegener was a meteorologist, far better acknowledged for keeping the earth history for the longest scorching-air balloon flight relatively than rock-connected investigate.

330px-Alfred Wegener ca.1924-30

(Credit: Community Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Definitely, his absence of credentials put him at odds with institution academics from the get started, but their scorn came also from a company belief that the continents had normally stood in additional or considerably less the similar situation. A lot of men and women had manufactured the glaring observation that the continents suit jointly like puzzle pieces (most evidently alongside the coasts of South The united states and Africa), but the dogma of continental permanence ran so deep that Wegener was the initially to very seriously take into account its reasonable conclusion: At some distant time, they need to have been joined.

When he initially noticed this jigsaw match on a earth atlas, about the Christmas of 1910, he far too uncovered it “improbable,” he wrote. But the next tumble he figured out that many fossils on both side of the Atlantic, in West Africa and Brazil, ended up nearly similar. He also figured out that to account for this, his contemporaries proposed plants and animals had crossed ancient land bridges which had given that sunk into the oceans. Wegener started to believe his speculation may well not be improbable, immediately after all.


Examine additional: Plate Tectonics: The Gradual Dance of Our Planet’s Crust


About the next several months, as he built his circumstance, he had no qualms about ditching the position quo. A thirty day period prior to he publicly presented his theory, in December 1912, he wrote to his mentor and foreseeable future father-in-law, Wladimir Koppen: If the evidence favored continental drift, he requested, “why need to we be reluctant to toss the old sights overboard? Why need to this thought be held back for 10 or even 30 several years?”

In hindsight, it is very clear these are the terms of an idealist. Dispassionate objectivity is the said target of science, true — but the response to Wegener’s proposal is a stark reminder that flesh-and-blood experts do not normally look at their thoughts at the laboratory doorway.

The Puzzle Will come Alongside one another

Just after publishing his initially papers on the subject matter — which ended up generally disregarded — in 1912, Wegener dropped his geological investigation for a although. He joined an expedition to Greenland, returned and married Else Koppen, had a initially youngster, Hilde, and was called to lively duty in Belgium at the get started of World War I. 

Later on, as he recovered from battle wounds, he formulated his concepts in a book, The Origin of Continents and Oceans, released in 1915. Its premise was that the Earth’s crust consisted of two layers, with the higher layer drifting frequently alongside the decreased, like the icebergs he’d witnessed floating throughout the Arctic seas. Much more than 250 million several years ago, he wrote, the continents of currently formed a solitary, broad landmass which he named Pangaea (Ancient Greek for “all-Earth”). Encompassing this supercontinent was a superocean, Panthalassa (“all-sea”).

The evidence to guidance this surprising argument came — unusually, in that era of demanding specialization — from all over the place: geology, geophysics, biology, paleontology, paleoclimatology and further than. This oft-denounced multidisciplinary strategy was crucial to Wegener’s discovery. “It is only by combing the facts furnished by all the Earth sciences,” he wrote, “that we can hope to establish ‘truth’ below.”

Wegener uncovered some of the strongest guidance for continental drift — which he really called continental displacement — in the striking similarity between many rock formations now separated by oceans. “It is just as if we ended up to refit the torn pieces of a newspaper by matching their edges and then look at whether or not the traces of print operate efficiently throughout,” he wrote. On the organic side, he was amazed by the resemblance not only of marsupials but also of the parasites that infect them, in equally Australia and South The united states. 

1200px-Wegener Expedition-1930 008

(Credit: Community Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

He knew he had mustered only oblique evidence, Lisa Yount writes in the biography, Alfred Wegener: Creator of the Continental Drift Idea. Even now, he “believed that the amount and wide variety of his evidence ended up so fantastic that they amounted to proof.”

‘Utter, Damned Rot’

The geologists of the earth emphatically disagreed. Just after a few of overlooked editions and an English translation, Wegener’s book sparked an mental firestorm in the twenties. The Austrian paleoclimatologist Fritz Kerner von Marilaun spoke of Wegener’s “delirious ravings,” although the British geologist Philip Lake stated at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Culture that Wegener was “not seeking real truth he is advocating a induce and is blind to each individual truth that tells in opposition to it.”

The Us residents — who had been at war with Wegener’s homeland just a several several years earlier — ended up specifically hostile. A first rate summary of their reaction came from William Berryman Scott, president of the American Philosophical Culture, who bluntly declared the theory “utter, damned rot.” 

During a 1926 meeting in New York Metropolis to go over continental drift, the foremost experts attacked its each individual line of evidence. A lot of of their critiques ended up valid — specifically relating to the unconvincing suggestion that the system for drift may well be both centrifugal pressure from the Earth’s rotation or tidal pull on the planet’s crust — but, Yount writes, “they need to not have been plenty of to make Earth experts discard Wegener’s theory solely.”


Examine additional: The Upcoming Pangea: What Earth’s Foreseeable future Supercontinent Will Seem Like


Even so, they did, and their ridicule worried away most would-be pursuers of continental drift. It’s simple to see what was at stake for these males — the theory undermined the basis of a science they had devoted their life to. “If we are to consider Wegener’s speculation,” wrote Rollin Chamberlin, a distinguished geologist at the College of Chicago, “we need to fail to remember almost everything which has been figured out in the previous 70 several years and get started all in excess of again.”

Even in the controversy of these early days, though, the initially traces of acceptance ended up noticeable. “We are speaking about this speculation because we would like him to be correct,” stated George William Lamplugh at the Royal Geographical Culture meeting, noting that it would address many lengthy-standing troubles for geology. “The fundamental thought may nonetheless bear far better fruit.” 

But that fruit necessary proponents daring plenty of to cultivate it, and these ended up scarce. As British geologist Richard Dixon Oldham put it at the time, “it was additional than any male who valued his name for scientific sanity ought to venture to advocate everything like this theory.”

1200px-Wegener Expedition-1930 008

Wegener (still left) and Rasmus Villumsen in Greenland, 1930. (Credit: Community Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Death and Recognition

Possibly Wegener wasn’t concerned about his name. Possibly he was self-assured posterity would restore it. Both way, he stored browsing, answering the barrage of criticism and censure with at any time additional refined proof. But by 1929, when he released the fourth and final version of his book, it continue to suffered from a fatal flaw: Powerful as his wild blend of evidence was, it couldn’t reveal what prompted the Earth’s crust to move.

The next calendar year, Wegener embarked on his previous experience: a weather conditions investigate expedition on Greenland’s distant, barren ice sheet. He invested the summer time and tumble hauling supplies by dogsled to the investigate station 250 miles inland, but as winter drew in the vicinity of, the locals he had hired deserted him. With a band diminished to only two males, he manufactured a final delivery of just plenty of meals and gasoline to continue to keep the station’s crew alive until finally spring. On Nov. 1, 1930, he still left for the coast. The temperature had dropped down below -sixty levels Fahrenheit.

Alongside the way he died, in all probability from a coronary heart assault. Months afterwards, when a look for get together uncovered his body, one particular member noted his deal with appeared “relaxed, peaceful, just about smiling.” Wegener was honored as a fantastic meteorologist and Arctic explorer — not as the architect of a fantastic geological theory.

On that entrance, it would choose a few additional many years for the earth to capture up. As late as 1958, a book rejecting continental drift involved a foreword by Albert Einstein. Then, suddenly, in one particular of science’s fantastic “I advised you so” times, the discoveries of seafloor spreading and the frequent rumbling and grinding of colossal tectonic plates lastly brought continental drift into the mainstream. 

Wegener did not get almost everything correct. It’s not the continents that drift, for each se, but relatively the slabs of crust, or lithosphere, to which they are attached. And the pressure driving this drift is not centrifugal or tidal, but convective — the Earth’s inside heat keeps these slabs in motion. But this theory of plate tectonics, one particular of the fantastic revolutions in modern science, owes its existence to Wegener’s personal imaginative theory and his willingness to consider further than the bounds of approved knowledge. Continental drift, writes British geologist Anthony Hallam, “stands not basically as a forerunner of the strategy that now prevails but as its true ancestor.”