Friday, January 6, 2012

100th anniversary of the first presentation by Alfred Wegener of his theory of Kontinentalverschiebung (continental drift)

January 6 is the anniversary of the Alfred Wegener's first presentation of his theory of continental drift, at the 1912 meeting of the German Geological Association. That makes this anniversary the 100th anniversary of this important advance in human understanding of our planet.

While there are extensive clues in the geology of our planet which suggest that the theory of plate tectonics is incorrect (many of which have been discussed on this blog, and many more of which are discussed in Dr. Walt Brown's book describing his alternative theory, which he calls the hydroplate theory), there is no denying that Wegener's theory was an improvement over the theories that reigned when he proposed it.

Wegener observed the apparent fit between the continents (he was most intrigued by the coastlines of Africa and South America on either side of the Altantic), and proposed that continental drift could explain this fit as well as solve many other vexing problems that the reigning "fixist" (no-drift) theory could not explain. [aside: An interesting note about the apparent continental fit that first spurred Wegener's interest is that Dr. Brown has demonstrated that the fit between the continents across the Atlantic is not so good, but the fit of the Atlantic-side edge of those continents with the serpentine line of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is outstanding: this suggests that the continents were blasted apart by the rupture event proposed in the hydroplate theory, during which much earth was eroded by the escaping floodwaters on either side of the rupture -- see discussion surrounding figures 51, 52 and 53 on this page of his website.]

For his efforts, Wegener was subjected to withering criticism and scorn throughout his life. This website from the UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology cites one scornful quotation from Dr. Rollin T. Chamberlin of the University of Chicago: "Wegener's hypothesis in general is of the footloose type, in that it takes considerable liberty with our globe, and is less bound by restrictions or tied down by awkward, ugly facts than most of its rival theories."

At a special symposium on the theory of continental drift held by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in 1926, virtually every aspect of his theory was soundly rejected. This website from Emporia University in Kansas points out that: "American geology was held in high regard in the early 20th century, and such overwhelming rejection of continental drift put an end to serious scientific discussion of the idea for the next four decades."

Of course, Wegener's theory was vindicated after the Second World War, when new technologies enabled better imaging and exploration of the geology of the ocean floor around the globe, and the discovery of massive ridges and abyssal trenches showed that the fixist objection (their assumption of a solid, uniform ocean floor through which no continent could drift) might be incorrect. Unfortunately for Wegener, this was long after his death, which occurred in 1930 during a scientific expedition to Greenland to monitor arctic weather over a full 12-month period.

Wegener's perseverance in the face of criticism, the vitriol of much of that criticism, and the eventual about-face performed by the scientific community in fully accepting his theory (to the point that proposed alternatives, ironically, face similarly withering criticism from the proponents of the now-dominant tectonic paradigm) all hold important lessons about the scientific process and about the quest for the truth in complicated questions. Some previous blog posts which go to the heart of this question include "Read Dr. Daniel Botkin's article, 'Absolute Certainty is not Scientific'" and "'There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists'."

These are very appropriate lessons to ponder on this important anniversary in the history of science.

Big hat tip to Graham Hancock Message Board forum member Hans M. for pointing this anniversary out to me.