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.

Wegener didn’t pluck his idea out of thin air. Most people who look at a map of the world are struck by how neatly the ‘bulge’ of South America seems to fit into the ‘hollow’ of West Africa, but there’s more to it than that. In the fossil record, species found in places like Nova Scotia are often identical with those found in Europe, but radically different from those found just a few hundred kilometres further inland in North America. The idea that ancient creatures could get themselves from Lisbon to Lunenburg but then couldn’t find their way to Montreal required some explanation. Similar patterns are noted across India, South America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica, which were all once part of a supercontinent called Gondwana. “For this reason, Southern hemisphere geologists were convinced of continental drift long before anyone else,” says Andrew Miall, Professor of Geology at the University of Toronto. […]

But the clincher was evidence from magnetic patterns trapped in undersea iron deposits on both sides of the Atlantic ridge. It turns out that the earth’s poles reverse themselves from time to time, and that iron particles in the newly-forming crust along the Atlantic and Pacific ridges align themselves accordingly. By comparing the magnetic patterns trapped in crust from both sides of the ridges, it’s possible not only to show that they are indeed spreading apart, but to calculate the rate (it’s about the same speed as your fingernails grow). Another Canadian, Lawrence W. Morley, wrote a paper on this, but was rejected by both Nature and the Journal of Geophysical Research, only to see it published a few months later by a pair of British researchers, Vine and Matthews.

The skepticism which greeted the unfortunate Morley is characteristic of the attitude toward the new theory, and in some quarters it persisted well into the 1970s. “I was taught nothing at all about the topic in my undergraduate years at University of London, UK, in 1962-1965,” says Miall. “At the International Congress in 1984 in Moscow, it was interesting to note that Russians appeared to have accepted sea-floor spreading but not the drifting of continents . . . how they managed to do this I don’t know!” Remembering Alfred Wegener

Human-Stupidity Analysis

Why does the obvious truth, in spite of strong scientific evidence, take half a Century to gain foothold? From Galileo to Semmelweis, the truth is clobbered by established forces. Nowadays prominent issues are race and iq dogma, child porn panic, drug war based on false dogmas, …

In 1912, when Alfred Wegener, a German meteorologist, first proposed that the earth’s continents were moving around, the notion was ridiculed. It took 50 years to gather enough data to prove that he was right.

Wegener’s idea was prompted by the way the continents seem to fit together like pieces of a vast puzzle: most notably how North and South America fit snugly against Europe and Africa. He also pointed to evidence from the fossil record, which showed that similar animal and plant life had once populated both Africa and South America, and suggested that continental drift could explain how mountains form by collisions such as the one between India and Asia that threw up the Himalayas.    
Geologists have found evidence for the existence of a new supercontinent

Alfred Wegener and continental drift. His idea was poorly recieved when he put it forward. However this was a reasonable reaction at the time. Wegener couldn’t offer any mechanism for his idea and his evidence wasn’t compelling, thus scientists rejected it. It was only after his death that an increasing body of evidence allowed the development of ‘plate tectonics’ as a viable theory and put continental drift on a sound footing.
There is also Doctor Barry Marshall, his idea that stomach ulcers were caused by bacterial infection. It was strongly resisted but unlike Wegener Marshall eventually found the evidence to support his idea and became a Nobel laureate. […]

Or the scientist who put forward the Table of Elements and the rule of eight.
He was ridiculed by the scientific community for years until others vindicated the work..   
Skeptics are sometimes wrong… but why?


Continental drift theory

Ever since the continents were all mapped, people had noticed that many coastlines, like those of South America and Africa, looked as though they would fit together if they could be moved like puzzle pieces.

Alfred Wegener was one of those people. Though trained as an astronomer, he was a specialist on Greenland. He noticed that, based on nineteenth-century longitude determinations, it appeared that Greenland had moved a mile away from Europe in a hundred years. And Paris and Washington, D.C., seemed to be moving apart by about 15 feet each year while San Diego and Shanghai got about six feet closer. On top of that, Wegener learned that related species, too small to swim the oceans, were found on different continents, as were similar fossils.

In 1912 he proposed that the continents we know today were once all attached in a single landmass he called Pangaea (Greek for "all earth"). They were surrounded by one global ocean, but then broke apart and somehow "drifted" to their separate places on the globe. Although the calculations of Greenland’s movement were found to be due to faulty determinations of longitude, the other evidence seemed to match up: the shape of the continents, fossil evidence, matching rock types and geologic structures, and evidence of ancient climate patterns. But Wegener could not come up with an acceptable way to explain how the continents moved.

Few people accepted Wegener’s views in his day, but they became the center of heated debate. The year after Wegener died, Arthur Holmes published his idea that thermal convection in the earth’s mantle could cause continents to move. Holmes also suggested that the continents didn’t move but were "carried" by larger pieces of the earth’s crust. The controversy quieted down and fell from prominence until the 1960s, when new evidence was brought to the fore. Discoveries of the Mid-Ocean Ridge and the work of Harry Hess and others led to the development of plate tectonics. Though not without problems, this theory has gained wide acceptance. It is the most complete theory of global dynamics yet, and its roots lie in the work of Alfred Wegener.


Alfred Wegener

In 1910, Wegener noticed the matching coastlines of the Atlantic continents — they looked on maps like they had once been fit together. He was not the first to notice this, but it was an idea that would never leave his thoughts. In 1911, he published a textbook on the thermodynamics of atmosphere, but at the same time he pursued his studies of the continents. He first spoke on the topic in January of 1912, where he put forth the idea of "continental displacement" or what later was called continental drift. The year 1912 was busy for Wegener: he got married (to the daughter of Germany’s leading meteorologist) and he returned to Greenland, making the longest crossing of the ice cap ever made on foot.

Though he served in World War I and was wounded twice, he published his ideas in 1915. They constituted the first focused and rational argument for continental drift, but still they veered radically from the accepted beliefs of the time. Some scientists supported him. Still more scientists opposed him — including his father-in-law, who seemed annoyed that Wegener had strayed from meteorology into the unknown territory of geophysics. The established reputation of many of his detractors probably gave more weight to their criticisms than was merited. Wegener often complained of their narrow-mindedness.   
Alfred Wegener 1880 – 1930


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4 thoughts on “Continental Drift Tectonic Plate Theory’s 100th anniversary. Alfred Wegener ridiculed for half a century”

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    Nice post which The 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. Thanks a lot for posting.

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    Continental Drift theory is rank bull sh*t. So is Einstein’s relativity theory(s). Galileo was a thief who stole the idea for a telescope from Hans Lippershey.

    Don’t take my word for it. Go to swimming pool and get a plank of flexible waterproof foam rubber. Try to get it to plunge under the surface. The subducting plates are believed to dive into a denser mantle without a power source. NONSENSE!


    Read: Sam W. Carey’s
    The Expanding Earth, 448 pp., Elsevier, Amsterdam 1976,
    Theories of the Earth and Universe, 206 pp., Stanford University Press. 1988,
    Earth Universe Cosmos – University of Tasmania. 1996

    Dan Kurt

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