Why are there some discoverers, pioneers, adventurers, artists who are tragically heroic? Who do amazing things and are not recognised in their lifetimes? Vincent Van Gogh is one, of course, though there is also a mythology that has grown up around him and his work. Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift was ridiculed as preposterous when he first pronounced it and he is often characterised as someone who was ‘before his time’, though this is a somewhat simplistic explanation. Although his theory was literally earth-shifting and took some getting used to, he was also hampered by writing as a German after WWI, and just when US scientists were thinking themselves as having taken over the reins of scientific research from Europe.
Wegener’s story is outlined in one of the four sections of James Lawrence Powell’s new Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences. (His story is also told in various other publications including the latest from Martin Rudwick, Earth’s Deep History.) The other ‘revolutions’ that Powell suggests were first ridiculed and then accepted are the dating of rocks and the Earth, the origin and composition of the moon and climate change (the last one making the book more than simply a work of history). But for me it is Wegener’s story that is the most intriguing, partly because of the lack of recognition he received for his pioneering work. (He died in 1930 on a research trip to Greenland.) Wegener himself was modest about his grand claims, but it was the fact that he was a meteorologist as well as a geologist that helped him develop his theory, highlighting the importance of cross-disciplinary study. He realised that the evidence in the rocks for vast climactic changes in continents could be explained if the continents had travelled from where they are now. The earth has experienced times of relative cold and warmth, but that did not adequately explain tropical plant fossils in Antarctica or glacial evidence in India. Eventually, Wegener’s theory was championed by others, while Americans continued to resist, and evidence, such as the unmistakable stretch-marks across the mid-Atlantic ridge, proved him right. But long after he had exited the scene.