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The Earth Moved

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 22, 2012

This is a story I wrote for the June issue of Smithsonian Magazine.  The editors there asked me to write a different lead, to make it seem more timely.  You can read that version here.  But I think the historical account stands on its own.  Feel free to disagree in the comments:

Alfred Wegener

On November 1, 1930, his fiftieth birthday, a German meteorologist named Alfred Wegener set out with a colleague on  a desperate 250-mile return trip from the middle of the Greenland ice pack back to the coast.  The weather was appalling, often below minus-60 degrees Fahrenheit.  Food was scarce.   They had two sleds with 17 dogs fanned out ahead of them, and the plan was to butcher the ones that died first for meat to keep the others going.

Less than halfway to the coast, down to seven dogs, they harnessed up a single sled and pushed on, with Wegener on skis working to keep up.   He was an old hand at arctic exploration.  This was his fourth expedition to study how winter weather there affected the climate in Europe.  Now he longed to be back home, where his wife Else and their three daughters awaited him.  He dreamed of “vacation trips with no mountain climbing or other semi-polar adventures” and of the day when “the obligation to be a hero ends, too.”   But he was also deeply committed to his work.  In a notebook, he kept a quotation reminding him that no one ever accomplished anything worthwhile “except under one condition:  I will accomplish it or die.”

That work included a geological theory, first published a century ago this year, that sent the world woozily sliding sideways and also outraged fellow scientists.  We like to imagine that science advances unencumbered by messy human emotions.  But Wegener’s brash intuition threatened to demolish the entire history of the Earth as it had been built up step by step by generations of careful thinkers.  The response from fellow scientists was a firestorm of moral outrage, followed by half a century of stony silence.

Wegener’s revolutionary idea was that the continents had started out massed together in a single supercontinent and then gradually drifted apart.   He was of course right.  Continental drift, and the more recent science of plate tectonics, are now the bedrock of modern geology, helping to answer life-or-death questions like where earthquakes may hit next, and how to keep San Francisco standing.   But in Wegener’s day, drift was heresy.  Geological thinking stood firmly on solid earth, continents and oceans were permanent features, and the present-day landscape was a perfect window into the past.

The idea that smashed this orthodoxy got its start at Christmas 1910, as Wegener (the W is pronounced like a V) was browsing through “the magnificent maps” in a friend’s new atlas.  Others before him had noticed that the Atlantic Coast of Brazil looked as if it might once have been tucked up against West Africa like a couple sleeping in the spoon position.  But no one had made much of this matchup, and Wegener was hardly the logical choice to show what they had been missing.  At that point, he was just a junior university lecturer, not merely untenured but unsalaried, apart from meager student fees.    Moreover, his specialties were meteorology and astronomy, not geology.

But Wegener was not timid about disciplinary boundaries, or much else:  He was an Arctic explorer and had also set a world record for endurance flight as a balloonist.   When his mentor and future father-in-law, one of the eminent scientists of the day, advised him to be cautious in his theorizing, Wegener replied, “Why should we hesitate to toss the old views overboard?”   It would be like heaving sandbags out of a gondola.

Wegener proceeded to cut out maps of the continents, stretching them to show how they might have looked before the landscape crumpled up into mountain ridges.  Then he fit them together on a globe, like jigsaw puzzle pieces, to form the supercontinent he called Pangaea.   Next, he pulled together biological and paleontological records showing that, in regions on opposite sides of the ocean, the plants and animals were often strikingly similar:  It wasn’t just that the marsupials in Australia and South America looked alike; so did the flatworms that parasitized them.   Finally, he pointed out how layered geological formations, or stratigraphy, often dropped off on one side of the ocean only to pick up again on the other.  It was as if someone had torn a newspaper sheet in two, and yet you could still read a sentence across the tear.

Wegener presented the idea he called “continental displacement” in a lecture to the Frankfurt Geological Association early in 1912.  The meeting ended with “no discussion due to the advanced hour,” much as when Darwinian evolution made its debut.   He published his idea for the first time in an article later that year.  But before the scientific community could muster much of a response, World War I broke out.  Wegener served in the German army on the Western Front, where he was wounded twice, in the neck and arm.  Hospital time gave him a chance to extend his idea into a book, The Origin of Continents and Oceans, published in German in 1915.  Then, with the appearance of an English translation in 1922, the bloody intellectual assault began.

Lingering anti-German sentiment no doubt aggravated the attack.  But German geologists also scorned the “delirious ravings” and other symptoms of “moving crust disease and wandering pole plague.”  Wegener’s idea, said one of his countryman, was a fantasy “that would pop like a soap bubble.” The British likewise ridiculed Wegener for distorting his jigsaw-puzzle continents to make them fit, and, more damningly, for failing to provide a credible mechanism powerful enough to move continents.  At a Royal Geographical Society meeting, an audience member thanked the speaker for having blown Wegener’s theory to bits–then also archly thanked the absent “Professor Wegener for offering himself for the explosion.”

But it was the Americans who came down hardest against continental drift.  Edward W. Berry, a paleontologist at Johns Hopkins University called it “Germanic Pseudo-Science” and accused Wegener of cherry-picking “corroborative evidence, ignoring most of the facts that are opposed to the idea, and ending in a state of auto-intoxication.”   Others poked holes in Wegener’s stratigraphic connections and joked that an animal had turned up with its fossilized head on one continent and its tail on another.  They argued that similar species had arrived on opposite sides of oceans by rafting on logs, or by traveling across land bridges that later collapsed.

At Yale, paleogeographer Charles Schuchert focused on Wegener’s lack of standing in the geological community:  “Facts are facts, and it is from facts that we make our generalizations,” he said, but it was “wrong for a stranger to the facts he handles to generalize from them.”   Schuchert showed up at one meeting with his own cut-out continents and clumsily demonstrated on a globe how badly they failed to match up, geology’s equivalent of O.J. Simpson’s glove.

The most poignant attack came from a father-son duo.  Thomas C. Chamberlin had launched his career as a young geologist decades earlier with a bold assault on the eminent British physicist Lord Kelvin.  He had gone on to articulate a distinctly democratic and American way of doing science, according to Naomi Oreskes, author of The Rejection of Continental Drift–Theory and Method in American Science.  Old World scientists tended to become too attached to grandiose theories, said Chamberlin.  The true scientist’s role was to lay out all competing theories on equal terms, without bias.  Like a parent with his children, he was “morally forbidden to fasten his affection unduly upon any one of them.”

But by the 1920s, Chamberlin was being celebrated by colleagues as “the Dean of American Scientists,” and a brother to Newton and Galileo among “great original thinkers.”  He had become not merely affectionate but besotted with his own “planetismal” theory of the origin of the Earth, which treated the oceans and continents as permanent features.  This “great love affair” with his own work was characterized, according to historian Robert Dott “by elaborate, rhetorical pirouetting with old and new evidence.”  Chamberlin’s democratic ideals—or perhaps some more personal motivation–required grinding Wegener’s grandiose theorizing underfoot.

Rollin T. Chamberlin, who was, like his father a University of Chicago geologist, stepped in to do the great man’s dirty work:   The drift theory was “of the foot-loose type … takes considerable liberties with our globe,” ignores “awkward, ugly facts,” and “plays a game in which there are few restrictive rules and no sharply drawn code of conduct.  So a lot of things go easily.”  Young Chamberlin also quoted an unnamed geologist’s remark that inadvertently revealed the heart of the problem:  “If we are to believe Wegener’s hypothesis we must forget everything which has been learned in the last 70 years and start all over again.”

Instead, geologists largely chose to forget Alfred Wegener, except to launch another flurry of attacks on his “fairy tale” theory in mid-World War II.   For decades after, older geologists quietly advised newcomers that any hint of the drift heresy would end their careers.

Wegener himself was exasperated but otherwise undaunted by his enemies.  He was careful to address valid criticisms, “but he never backtracked and he never retracted anything,” says Mott Greene, a University of Puget Sound historian whose biography, Alfred Wegener’s Life and Scientific Work comes out later this year.  “That was always his response:  Just assert it again, even more strongly.”  By the time Wegener published the final version of his theory in 1929, he felt certain that continental drift would soon sweep aside other theories and pull together all the accumulating evidence into a single unifying vision of the Earth’s history.  He didn’t pretend to know for certain what mechanism would prove powerful enough to explain the movement of continents.  But he reminded critics that it was commonplace in science to describe a phenomenon (for instance, the laws of falling bodies and of planetary orbits) and only later figure out what made it happen (Newton’s formula of universal gravitation).  He added, “The Newton of drift theory has not yet appeared.”

The turnabout on Wegener’s theory came relatively quickly, in the mid-1960s, as older geologists died off, unenlightened, and a new generation accumulated irrefutable proof of sea-floor spreading, and of vast tectonic plates grinding across one another deep within the Earth.  Else Wegener lived to see her husband’s triumph.  Wegener himself was not so fortunate.

That 1930 expedition had sent him out on an impossible mission.  A subordinate had failed to supply enough food for two members of his weather study team spending that winter in the middle of Greenland’s ice pack.  Wegener and a colleague made the delivery that saved their lives.   He died on the terrible trip back down to the Coast.  His colleague also vanished, lost somewhere in the endless snow.  Searchers later found Wegener’s body and reported that “his eyes were open, and the expression on his face was calm and peaceful, almost smiling.”  It was as if he had already foreseen his vindication.

5 Responses to “The Earth Moved”

  1. vdinets said

    I wonder how many “fringe science” theories of today will be eventually accepted as obvious🙂

  2. Although Wegener was the first to come up with a theory of continental drift, he was not the first to propose the idea of a single continental landmass that later became separated. Antonio Snider-Pellegrini, an America/Italian geologist (often incorrectly said to be French), published a book in 1859 that discussed the strange fitting pattern of South America and Africa’s shorelines. He correctly inferred that these continents were once a single landmass, and explained the separation as the result of the Great Flood.

  3. […] So now the other shoe has dropped, and a court has convicted the seismologists and packed them off to jail for six years for the crime of having given false assurances in the days before the earthquake.  It has caused deep dismay in the scientific community and on the internet.  On Twitter, @dbasch says, “Being a seismologist in a country that doesn’t understand science is a risky job. This is insane.”  (Looking on the bright side, he’s not talking about the United States, for once.)  And @seamusmccauley says,  “Italy’s remaining seismologists unanimously predict daily earthquakes at all locations for the next 500 years.” You can read my continental drift story–and weep for Alfred Wegener–here. […]

  4. Donal said

    Keith Runcorn’s 1962 book was the first to vindicate Wegener’s theory.

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