Continental Drift Tectonic Plate Theory’s 100th anniversary. Alfred Wegener ridiculed for half a century

Continental Drift Theory’s 100’s anniversary on January 6, 2012. Pioneering scientist Alfred Wegener had presented it to the Geological Society in Frankfurt. He was ridiculed for half a century for his absurd idea that the continents float and drift. In 1945, Albert Einstein wrote a preface to a book criticizing Wegner’s theory.  [1]. In 1964, Encyclopedia Britannica stated that the continental drift theory had grave theoretical problems.

Continental-Drift-1The ruling theory posited that the earth shrunk and shriveled, like an old apple, causing mountains to form. Unlike Continental Drift theory It could not explain why mountains were unevenly distributed over the earth, nor why Norway had coal which originated in tropical climates, nor why there were similar fossils on both sides of the Atlantic. Instead, unproven theories of land bridges across continents tried to explain how the animals could have crossed the oceans. [1]

One would expect that in our modern ages,

unlike early scientists, modern scientists proposing radical new ideas do not need to fear the reactions of those entrenched in the existing system. Alfred Wegener is one modern scientist amongst many that demonstrate that new ideas threaten the establishment, regardless of the century.

Alfred Wegener was the scientist who championed the Continental Drift Theory through the first few decades of the twentieth century. Simply put, his hypothesis proposed that the continents had once been joined, and over time had drifted apart. The jigsaw fit that the continents make with each other can be seen by looking at any world map."

Since his ideas challenged scientists in geology, geophysics, zoogeography and paleontology, it demonstrates the reactions of different communities of scientists. The reactions by the leading authorities in the different disciplines was so strong and so negative that serious discussion of the concept stopped. One noted scientist, the geologist Barry Willis, seemed to be speaking for the rest when he said:

                 "further discussion of it merely incumbers the literature and befogs the mind of fellow students.

Barry Willis’s and the other scientists wishes were fulfilled. Discussion did stop in the larger scientific community and students’ minds were not befogged. The world had to wait until the 1960’s for a wide discussion of the Continental Drift Theory to be restarted.

Why did Alfred Wegener’s work produce such a reaction? He was much more diplomatic in presenting his theory than Galileo. Although he believed himself to be right and that some of his arguments were compelling, he knew he would need more support to convince others. His immediate goal was to have the concept openly discussed. Wegener did not even present Continental Drift as a proven theory. These modest goals did not spare him. The fact that his work crossed disciplines exposed him to the territoriality of scientific disciplines. The authorities in the various disciplines attacked him as an interloper that did not fully grasp their own subject. More importantly however, was that even the possibility of Continental Drift was a huge threat to the established authorities in each of the disciplines.

One can’t underestimate the effect of a radical new viewpoint on those established in a discipline. The authorities in these fields are authorities because of their knowledge of the current view of their discipline. A radical new view on their discipline could be a threat to their own authority. One of Alfred Wegener’s critics, the geologist R. Thomas Chamberlain, could not have summarized this threat any better :

"             If we are to believe in Wegener’s hypothesis we must forget everything which has been learned in the past 70 years and start all over again."

He was right.       Wegener, Galileo and Darwin

Alfred-WegenerAlfred Wegener, Galileo Galiei, Charles Darwin

The main problem with Wegener’s hypothesis of Continental Drift was the lack of a mechanism. […] In spite of the lack of a mechanism for the preservation of traits, Darwin’s theory quickly came to dominate. Within 5 years, Oxford University was using a biology textbook that discussed biology in the context of evolution by natural selection. […]

Wegener also shares much in common with Galileo. Wegener probably had at least as strong a case for Continental Drift in 1929 as Galileo had for the Copernican model in 1633. The reason many do not realize this is that the controversy is usually presented as a controversy between Galileo and the Church and not Galileo and other scientists (see Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens). As a result most discussions of the early Copernican Model do not even mention any problems associated with the Copernican model. But it was a scientific controversy and it had many of the same elements of the Continental Drift controversy. […]

From the descriptions above it would be difficult to explain why one of the theories was quickly accepted by the scientific communities, another was quickly dismissed even as a hypothesis, and the other was accepted by some and challenged by others. Interpreting these events from a strictly scientific basis won’t help. All of the theories had some compelling advantages and all had some very serious failings when they were first presented. We might have to look beyond the world of ideas to the world of people, events and things to help answer the question.

Darwin, was the ultimate insider in English scientific circles. His grandfather, Erasmus, was an early student of evolution and his half-cousin, Francis Galton, was a noted statistician who was considered the father of eugenics. Being part of the Wedgewood-Darwin clan meant having no worries about money and established connections in the scientific world. When evolution by natural selection was under attack, Darwin could enlist the efforts of a Who’s Who of mid-nineteenth century English science. The most famous of the early defenses of Darwinism was not by Darwin himself but by the famous biologist, Thomas Huxley and the social philosopher, Herbert Spencer.   Wegener, Galileo and Darwin

 

Remembering Alfred Wegener

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” This summary, usually attributed to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, seem especially true of scientific knowledge. Take plate tectonics. The idea that surface of the earth is constantly changing as continents drift around on top of a layer of molten rock is so well established that it’s hard for most people to imagine otherwise. But exactly 100 years ago today, when a 31-year-old German meteorologist named Alfred Wegener presented this idea at a meeting of the Geological Association in Frankfurt, he was mocked. It would take decades and the work of many other scientists – including some prominent Canadians – to show that plate tectonics are as real as gravity and evolution.

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