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When Continental Drift Was Considered Pseudoscience 214

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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  • theories (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:06AM (#40208309)

    So the OP's professor was in grad school circa-1912?

    Also, a lot of people don't realize (and the OP confirms) that almost all geological science to date has been funded by oil and mining companies.

  • Heat and movement (Score:1, Interesting)

    by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:08AM (#40208337)

    denounced them as ridiculous

    It was completely ridiculous before atomic energy and computers.

    In a pre-atomic era, there seems to be no rational way to avoid a frozen solid earth. Frozen solid = no movement.

    Virtually no effort was put into why the continents move and it took decades to come up with a reasonable story based on all kinds of wild fluid dynamics.

    He was, of course, right.

    He was, of course, making irrational stuff up, that accidentally happened to turn out to be correct. Kind of like the ancient greek version of atomic theory.

    If real, usable, economic warp speed spacecraft propulsion is ever invented, that doesn't mean the "star trek" writers should get credit.

  • by Hentes ( 2461350 ) on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:14AM (#40208401)

    Continents don't "drift" on the ocean like Wegener imagined, rather the motion of continents is caused by continental and oceanic plates engaging in tectonic events.

  • Re:theories (Score:4, Interesting)

    by sideslash ( 1865434 ) on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:38AM (#40208683)

    So the OP's professor was in grad school circa-1912?

    No, there are two theories spoken of here -- the original idea of continental drift a century ago (which showed up without much of an explanation, hence viewed by some as pseudoscience), and the more modern theories about plate tectonics and seafloor spreading, which serve to validate and explain continental drift. The latter were evidently emerging when the prof was in grad school.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:59AM (#40208925)

    Because when he did, he insisted that all orbits around the sun were perfectly circular. He rejected the idea of elliptical orbits -- an idea that had already been proposed.

    It's actually much worse than that. Galileo made up a lot of stuff that went contrary to empirical data, and he claimed that all sorts of things were "true" when there was no empirical data to support them. See this article: []

    Of course, Galileo was a great scientist and more of an empiricist than a lot of his peers in other matters. But on the heliocentrism question, his evidence was pretty darn murky (and perhaps even should be considered downright "unscientific").

  • by bhlowe ( 1803290 ) on Monday June 04, 2012 @11:00AM (#40208935)
    And now Expanding Earth Theory [] is considered pseudo-science...

    I am not a geologist, but I find it a pretty interesting theory.. and the author makes a good case.. The site is interesting reading and is a good example of thinking outside the conventional norms. And is also another example of scientists ridiculing a theory while (seemingly?) failing to debunk it.
  • And in reverse (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ISoldat53 ( 977164 ) on Monday June 04, 2012 @11:05AM (#40208991)
    We have string theory accepted as fact with little or no data to support it.
  • I remember (Score:4, Interesting)

    by boristdog ( 133725 ) on Monday June 04, 2012 @11:12AM (#40209077)

    My sister's science fair project in 1972 was on "continental drift" and she had to add "theory" to the title because several of the district science fair judges did not believe that it could possibly be true.

  • Re:theories (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Rogue Haggis Landing ( 1230830 ) on Monday June 04, 2012 @11:27AM (#40209235)

    No, there are two theories spoken of here -- the original idea of continental drift a century ago (which showed up without much of an explanation, hence viewed by some as pseudoscience), and the more modern theories about plate tectonics and seafloor spreading, which serve to validate and explain continental drift. The latter were evidently emerging when the prof was in grad school.

    The theory of plate tectonics was developed in the 1950s and 1960s [], as people worked through the implications of the older idea of continental drift and worked out mechanisms for it, and as things like sonar mapping of the seafloor came into being.

    My father is a geographer and was in grad school from 1966 to 1971, and he's talked about the fighting over plate tectonics going on among the geologists and physical geographers at his university. At the end of his time in grad school there were a few older geologists who adamantly refused to buy into the idea. Most people in the profession were convinced very quickly of the reality of plate tectonics, once there were good tests of the theory (like the Vine-Matthews-Morley hypothesis []). But the "anti-drifter" stance was only killed off by attrition, as the people opposed to it either retired or else died with their boots on.

    It's a pretty interesting example of the emergence of a major new idea that completely reshapes a field of knowledge, and does so very quickly once a good explanatory mechanism is found. There's probably a good book-length study of it, and if there isn't then there should be.

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

    by Stirling Newberry ( 848268 ) on Monday June 04, 2012 @12:03PM (#40209607) Homepage Journal
    Wegener actually proposed sea floor spreading. What was missing was the understanding of how plates act. Wegner's hypothesis, unsurprisingly given his career, had land masses acting like sheets of ice floating above rock, this wasn't indicated by the geology. Boundary ideas can be found in the 1920's. Many of the pieces of the puzzle of tectonics came together because of improved measurement, and improved understanding of the dynamics of large plates of rock. Wegener, not surprisingly given his work, looked at continental crust as floating on top of sea basalts – this was both a common view of the time, and in line with Wegener's artic experience of glaciers and ice sheets. It is this that really marks the difference between "continental drift" as a theory, which supposes that continents are "pushed" by some dynamic force, and plate tectonics, which sees plates as rising and being subducted. Improved seismology and sonar allowed for a more precise view of the earth in three dimensions.

    The tectonic view is far more predictive of a wide range of phenomena, including gravity anomalies under mountain ranges, zones of vulcanism (e.g. the "ring of fire" around the pacific) and so on. Wegener's role in modern geology is somewhat similar to Lorentz' role in the development of relativity. The Lorentz contraction is an effect, but Lorentz was unable to place it within a theoretical framework which unified many other observations. Wegener did not unify the action of the mantle with the action of crust correctly. Lack of a mechanism does not stop us from studying, for example, Kepler or Newton. Newton offers no mechanism for gravitation, and Kepler no mechanism for his orbital dynamics.

    Wegener died relatively young, in an attempt to save others in the arctic, and had the misfortune of being too far ahead of the available observations. He was, on a key point, simply wrong about basalt dynamics.

  • Re:theories (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Will.Woodhull ( 1038600 ) <> on Monday June 04, 2012 @03:06PM (#40212051) Homepage Journal

    Ok, I had been too lazy to do the math. But I now feel shamed into it.

    The Earth's ocean surface area: 335,258,000 sq km (from [])

    A conservative estimate of the amount of sea level rise from AGW over the next 75 years, give or take, seems to be around 10 cm.

    Volume needed to raise the ocean surface area by 10 cm: 3.35*10^13 cu m

    Weight of 1 cubic meter of water: 282.5 lb (Pardon the change from metric to english, but I am more comfortable with the measures I learned as a kid. Especially as I want to talk about weight and not mass.)

    Weight of the increased water: 9.5*10^15 lb, or 4.7*10^12 tons.

    That seems like an awful lot of weight to take off of Antarctica and Greenland. If the continents are actually floating on the mantle, then these two would become more bouyant as all that ice melts away.

    So the question for geologists is to what extent would the rise of Antarctica and Greenland affect the plate tectonics? Bearing in mind that this weight has been transferred to the ocean floors at roughly 14,000 tons per sq km?

    (It would not hurt my feelings if someone would check my math.)

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