Continental Drift: A Revolutionary Theory That Was Once Considered Pseudoscience

Victoria D. Doty

Scientific belief shifts in the very same way continents do — really, really slowly and gradually. Sometimes the transform is so lengthy coming that the writer of a new idea doesn’t stay to see his function vindicated. Sometimes he freezes to dying, on an expedition in an Arctic wasteland, a long time before his friends lastly acknowledge him as a visionary.

These kinds 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 appears to be. He was correct, of course. Geologists nowadays take the fundamentals of his idea of continental drift — albeit in the extra refined context of plate tectonics — as a reality of mother nature: Our planet’s configuration of land and ocean was distinctive thousands and thousands of a long time ago, and will be distinctive thousands and thousands of a long time from now.

The professionals of Wegener’s have time, nonetheless, dismissed the idea as pseudoscience and diagnosed him with “moving crust disorder and wandering pole plague.” They did eventually sign up for him on the correct facet of history, soon after a 50 {394cb916d3e8c50723a7ff83328825b5c7d74cb046532de54bc18278d633572f}-century’s value of efforts to discredit his function and disparage his character. But as he waited for the rest of the planet to embrace his ideas, it may perhaps nicely have felt like standing on the Florida coastline and watching the horizon for the technique of Africa. 

An Exterior Perspective

The gentleman who toppled the edifice of geological expertise wasn’t even a geologist. A qualified astronomer, sure a daring and renowned explorer, sure an authority on Earth sciences, no. Wegener was a meteorologist, greater recognized for holding the planet report for the longest warm-air balloon flight alternatively than rock-associated study.

330px-Alfred Wegener ca.1924-30

(Credit score: General public Area/Wikimedia Commons)

Certainly, his absence of credentials place him at odds with establishment academics from the commence, but their scorn arrived also from a agency belief that the continents experienced usually stood in extra or fewer the very same place. Lots of persons experienced produced the glaring observation that the continents in good shape jointly like puzzle parts (most plainly along the coasts of South The united states and Africa), but the dogma of continental permanence ran so deep that Wegener was the to start with to critically look at its sensible summary: At some distant time, they have to have been joined.

When he to start with seen this jigsaw match on a planet atlas, about the Xmas of 1910, he much too found it “improbable,” he wrote. But the next drop he realized that quite a few fossils on either facet of the Atlantic, in West Africa and Brazil, were virtually similar. He also realized that to account for this, his contemporaries instructed plants and animals experienced crossed historical land bridges which experienced given that sunk into the oceans. Wegener started to imagine his speculation might not be unbelievable, soon after all.


Study extra: Plate Tectonics: The Gradual Dance of Our Planet’s Crust


Around the next few months, as he created his case, he experienced no qualms about ditching the standing quo. A month before he publicly presented his idea, in December 1912, he wrote to his mentor and foreseeable future father-in-regulation, Wladimir Koppen: If the evidence favored continental drift, he questioned, “why need to we hesitate to toss the previous views overboard? Why need to this thought be held back again for 10 or even thirty a long time?”

In hindsight, it’s very clear these are the phrases of an idealist. Dispassionate objectivity is the stated target of science, correct — but the response to Wegener’s proposal is a stark reminder that flesh-and-blood researchers really do not usually test their feelings at the laboratory doorway.

The Puzzle Will come With each other

Right after publishing his to start with papers on the issue — which were typically disregarded — in 1912, Wegener dropped his geological investigation for a while. He joined an expedition to Greenland, returned and married Else Koppen, experienced a to start with boy or girl, Hilde, and was referred to as to lively duty in Belgium at the commence of Planet War I. 

Later on, as he recovered from battle wounds, he formulated his ideas in a ebook, The Origin of Continents and Oceans, posted in 1915. Its premise was that the Earth’s crust consisted of two layers, with the higher layer drifting continually along the decrease, like the icebergs he’d found floating across the Arctic seas. Additional than 250 million a long time ago, he wrote, the continents of nowadays formed a one, vast landmass which he named Pangaea (Ancient Greek for “all-Earth”). Encompassing this supercontinent was a superocean, Panthalassa (“all-sea”).

The evidence to assistance this surprising argument arrived — unusually, in that era of stringent specialization — from in all places: geology, geophysics, biology, paleontology, paleoclimatology and further than. This oft-denounced multidisciplinary system was critical to Wegener’s discovery. “It is only by combing the data furnished by all the Earth sciences,” he wrote, “that we can hope to ascertain ‘truth’ listed here.”

Wegener found some of the strongest assistance for continental drift — which he really referred to as continental displacement — in the hanging similarity among quite a few rock formations now separated by oceans. “It is just as if we were to refit the torn parts of a newspaper by matching their edges and then test whether the lines of print operate easily across,” he wrote. On the biological facet, he was amazed by the resemblance not only of marsupials but also of the parasites that infect them, in each Australia and South The united states. 

1200px-Wegener Expedition-1930 008

(Credit score: General public Area/Wikimedia Commons)

He knew he experienced mustered only indirect evidence, Lisa Yount writes in the biography, Alfred Wegener: Creator of the Continental Drift Idea. Nevertheless, he “believed that the amount and wide range of his evidence were so fantastic that they amounted to proof.”

‘Utter, Damned Rot’

The geologists of the planet emphatically disagreed. Right after a couple of ignored editions and an English translation, Wegener’s ebook sparked an intellectual firestorm in the 1920s. The Austrian paleoclimatologist Fritz Kerner von Marilaun spoke of Wegener’s “delirious ravings,” while the British geologist Philip Lake reported at a conference of the Royal Geographical Culture that Wegener was “not trying to find real truth he is advocating a lead to and is blind to each reality that tells against it.”

The Us residents — who experienced been at war with Wegener’s homeland just a few a long time earlier — were specially hostile. A decent summary of their response arrived from William Berryman Scott, president of the American Philosophical Culture, who bluntly declared the idea “utter, damned rot.” 

All through a 1926 convention in New York City to discuss continental drift, the main professionals attacked its each line of evidence. Lots of of their critiques were legitimate — specially about the unconvincing suggestion that the system for drift might be either centrifugal pressure from the Earth’s rotation or tidal pull on the planet’s crust — but, Yount writes, “they need to not have been sufficient to make Earth researchers discard Wegener’s idea entirely.”


Study extra: The Subsequent Pangea: What Earth’s Long run Supercontinent Will Glance Like


Nevertheless, 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 guys — the idea undermined the foundation of a science they experienced devoted their lives to. “If we are to feel Wegener’s speculation,” wrote Rollin Chamberlin, a prominent geologist at the College of Chicago, “we have to forget about almost everything which has been realized in the very last 70 a long time and commence all in excess of all over again.”

Even in the controversy of those people early days, even though, the to start with traces of acceptance were obvious. “We are discussing this speculation simply because we would like him to be correct,” reported George William Lamplugh at the Royal Geographical Culture conference, noting that it would address quite a few lengthy-standing troubles for geology. “The fundamental thought may perhaps but bear greater fruit.” 

But that fruit necessary proponents daring sufficient to cultivate it, and those people were scarce. As British geologist Richard Dixon Oldham place it at the time, “it was extra than any gentleman who valued his popularity for scientific sanity ought to enterprise to advocate nearly anything like this idea.”

1200px-Wegener Expedition-1930 008

Wegener (still left) and Rasmus Villumsen in Greenland, 1930. (Credit score: General public Area/Wikimedia Commons)

Loss of life and Recognition

Probably Wegener wasn’t apprehensive about his popularity. Probably he was assured posterity would restore it. Both way, he retained exploring, answering the barrage of criticism and censure with ever extra refined proof. But by 1929, when he posted the fourth and remaining edition of his ebook, it nonetheless suffered from a fatal flaw: Compelling as his wild blend of evidence was, it couldn’t clarify what caused the Earth’s crust to move.

The next year, Wegener embarked on his very last journey: a weather study expedition on Greenland’s remote, barren ice sheet. He put in the summer months and drop hauling materials by dogsled to the study station 250 miles inland, but as winter drew near, the locals he experienced employed deserted him. With a band lessened to only two guys, he produced a remaining shipping and delivery of just sufficient foods and gas to hold the station’s crew alive right until spring. On Nov. 1, 1930, he still left for the coastline. The temperature experienced dropped underneath -60 levels Fahrenheit.

Alongside the way he died, probably from a heart assault. Months later on, when a lookup bash found his system, one member claimed his deal with appeared “relaxed, peaceful, practically smiling.” Wegener was honored as a fantastic meteorologist and Arctic explorer — not as the architect of a fantastic geological idea.

On that front, it would just take a few extra a long time for the planet to catch up. As late as 1958, a ebook rejecting continental drift provided a foreword by Albert Einstein. Then, abruptly, in one of science’s fantastic “I informed you so” moments, the discoveries of seafloor spreading and the consistent rumbling and grinding of colossal tectonic plates lastly brought continental drift into the mainstream. 

Wegener didn’t get almost everything correct. It’s not the continents that drift, for every se, but alternatively the slabs of crust, or lithosphere, to which they are attached. And the pressure driving this drift isn’t centrifugal or tidal, but convective — the Earth’s inside warmth keeps these slabs in motion. But this idea of plate tectonics, one of the fantastic revolutions in modern-day science, owes its existence to Wegener’s have creative idea and his willingness to consider further than the bounds of recognized wisdom. Continental drift, writes British geologist Anthony Hallam, “stands not simply as a forerunner of the concept that now prevails but as its correct ancestor.”

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