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Science

When Continental Drift Was Considered Pseudoscience 214

Posted by samzenpus
from the drifting-to-the-truth dept.
Lasrick writes "I Love this article in Smithsonian by Richard Conniff. One of my geology professors was in grad school when the theories for plate tectonics, seafloor spreading, etc., were introduced; he remembered how most of his professors denounced them as ridiculous. The article chronicles the introduction of continental drift theory, starting a century ago with Alfred Wegener. From the article: 'It was a century ago this spring that a little-known German meteorologist named Alfred Wegener proposed that the continents had once been 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 vital questions like where to find precious oil and mineral deposits, and how to keep San Francisco upright. But in Wegener’s day, geological thinking stood firmly on a solid earth where continents and oceans were permanent features.'"
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When Continental Drift Was Considered Pseudoscience

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  • Re:Heat and movement (Score:5, Informative)

    by Stirling Newberry (848268) on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:19AM (#40208471) Homepage Journal
    Wegener's evidence was hardly irrational, and there was still opposition from mainline geologists in the 1940's. That would be well after atomic decay releasing heat was well known. In fact, the first measurements of atomic decay and heat pre-dated Wegener's first publications about the existence of an "Ur-kontinent." Wegner, while foolhardy, was no irrational fantasist. He and his brother Kurt pioneered using weather balloons to map air masses, and drilling ice cores. He wrote what may be the first serious scientific study on paleo-climatology.

    He didn't "just happen" to be right, he was a serious scientist who correctly observed evidence for geological change, and correctly supposed that slow gradual movement of landmasses over time was indicated.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:21AM (#40208497)

    Wegener was correct about the continents moving around, and amassed plenty of evidence that the continents were once grouped together into the supercontinent of Pangaea (e.g., similar land animals and plants in rocks of the Carboniferous and Permian on continents now separated by wide oceans). But he was completely wrong about the mechanism. He proposed that the continents were plowing through the ocean crust kind of like icebergs floating on the sea, but when you work out the physics of that situation, the ocean crust is too strong to allow that to happen (continental lithosphere is too weak, and you'd crush them before being able to push them through the oceanic lithosphere even if a suitable force were applied). So, without a valid mechanism that made physical sense, geologists rejected his model. Plate tectonics didn't originate until the 1960s or 1970s when people realized that, essentially, the oceanic lithosphere was moving along with the continents, being formed at mid-oceanic ridges and destroyed at subduction zones, so the physical problems with Wegener's original continental drift no longer applied. People often think continental drift and plate tectonics are the same theory, but they are fairly different. The largely rejected original theory transformed into the new, modern one. Wegener still deserves a lot of credit for bringing together the evidence that the Earth's surface really did move, and by the 1970s that motion was directly measurable. It's pretty cool to imagine that every year the distance between, say, Europe and North America, gets a few cm longer.

  • by sideslash (1865434) on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:23AM (#40208515)
    It's an awkwardly written summary that jumps back and forth not once, but twice between the Smithsonian writer and the guy's professor. It also inappropriately capitalizes "love" and is redundant right before the beginning of the quote ("century ago" etc.).

    And just changing the period to a comma would actually increase the ambiguity from a "I wonder if" to an "aaaugh" level, dude.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:49AM (#40208815)

    I agree it's pretty awkward, but I don't understand how you can be confused as to whether Conniff was the submitter's professor. AC's point about the period was that it makes it obvious he is talking about two different people. There's no ambiguity, just poor writing.

    I don't know where you are getting the idea that it "jumps back and forth" between Conniff and the professor, either. Conniff is mentioned only in the beginning. Do you mean because after talking about the professor the submitter quotes the article?

  • by catchblue22 (1004569) on Monday June 04, 2012 @11:49AM (#40209445) Homepage

    I took a geology course a decade ago, and my professor discussed the previous theories of geology. Geosynclines [wikipedia.org] were part of the idea to explain what we geologically observe. I don't have too much of an understanding of it, but it amounted to saying that landslides and similar types of sediment transport were responsible for the underwater landscape. My professor said that even back then it didn't make too much sense.

  • by craw (6958) on Monday June 04, 2012 @12:34PM (#40210041) Homepage

    TC Chamberlin who oppose the concept of continental drift, previously opposed another hypothesis. This would be the age of earth put forth by Lord Kelvin who based his estimate on the time it would take a molten earth to cool down. Chamberlin, in opposition, wrote the following.

    The fascinating impressiveness of rigorous mathematical analysis, with its atmosphere of precision and elegance, should not blind us to the defects of the premises that condition the whole process.

    Kelvin's defect of the premises was that he did not include heat due to radioactive decay. And in a bit of irony, it is this heat that causes convection within the earth, which causes seafloor spreading/plate tectonics. So Chamberlin got one thing right, and one thing wrong.

  • Re:Good Try (Score:4, Informative)

    by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday June 04, 2012 @12:44PM (#40210183) Journal

    Carl Sagan said it best: "They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

  • Re:Heat and movement (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @12:59PM (#40210351)

    Actually, it just might. That's how we got self-opening doors. When TOS came out and Disney was planning EPCOT, they saw Star Trek and their "imagineers" went to Paramount to find out how they accomplished it

    The first automatic door in the US was installed at a busy entrance to MIT in 1931. By 1940, automatic doors powered by GE's "Magic Eye" device could be found in factories, warehouses, and restaurants all over the country.

  • Re:theories (Score:5, Informative)

    by proslack (797189) on Monday June 04, 2012 @02:04PM (#40211233) Journal
    Wegener presented plenty of evidence that drift had occurred in the past but didn't have a reasonable driving mechanism. His book "Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane" has remarkable detail, discussing isostasy in terms of mineral density, triple junctions (e.g. Red Sea region), and the boundaries of the plates. He just didn't have enough evidence (no fault of his own, it just wasn't available) to cause a major paradigm shift (ala Kuhn http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Structure_of_Scientific_Revolutions [wikipedia.org]); instead, he laid some of the groundwork for future acceptance. The hypothesis was not dismissed out of hand or completely; instead, it was batted around with varying levels of interest until the 1950s, as evidenced by scholarly citations of his various pertinent articles and books. Scientists are typically occupationally conservative and require a preponderance of strong evidence to advance a hypothesis (Continental Drift) to a theory (Plate Tectonics); that Wegener was working out of his primary field of meteorology didn't help either. If Wegener had known about seafloor spreading, I think things would have turned out differently, but that had to wait for Harry Hess and his USN sonar.

I've never been canoeing before, but I imagine there must be just a few simple heuristics you have to remember... Yes, don't fall out, and don't hit rocks.

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