The origins of plate tectonics

This week, we’ve been uploading clips from Richard Thomas’ film ‘Dan McKenzie and friends’, which looks at the early history of the theory of plate tectonics.

It’s easy to forget that plate tectonics, an idea we’re all familiar with at least on a basic level, isn’t all that old. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the theory as we know it today began to come together, thanks to the scientists featured in the film, as well as others.

Abraham Ortelius 1527 - 1598 (Rubens, 1633)

Contintental drift, on the other hand, has been around for a surprisingly long time. Way back in 1587 the Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius wrote in Thesaurus Geographicus that the Americas were

“torn away from Europe and Africa…by earthquakes and floods”

and that

“the vestiges of the rupture reveal themselves, if someone brings forward a map of the world and considers carefully the coasts of the three [continents]”.

Researching the early history of continental drift often brings up Ortelius’ name but, surprisingly, another scientist who was on to the idea years before a mechanism was established is rarely mentioned.

In his brilliant 1842 monograph on the structure of coral reefs, Charles Darwin proposes, among other things, a theory for how coral atolls are formed. His hypothesis that the circular reefs are formed by coral forming on a volcanic island, then growing upwards as the island subsides beneath it, was widely accepted but not proven definitely until the 1950s.

From 'The structure and distribution of coral reefs' 1842

Outlining the theory, he writes;

“Do the areas which have subsided, as indicated by the presence of atolls and barrier-reefs, and the areas which have remained stationary or have been upraised, as shown by fringing-reefs, bear any determinate relation to each other; and are the dimensions of these areas such as harmonize with the greatness of the subterranean changes, which, it must be supposed, have lately taken place beneath them? Is there any connection between the movements thus indicated, and recent volcanic action?”

And, later;

“it may, I think, be considered as almost established, that volcanos are often (not necessarily always) present in those areas where the subterranean motive power has lately forced, or is now forcing outwards the crust of the earth, but that they are invariably absent in those, where the surface has lately subsided or is still subsiding”

He is clearly onto the fact that there is some sort of ‘motive force’ under the surface which is driving these changes.

Here, as with inheritance, Darwin suffered from being too far ahead of his time, hypothesising ideas which he needed 21st century tools to prove. He wasn’t the only one – by the time Alfred Wegener presented the theory of continental drift to the German Geological Society in 1912, he was crediting several others with having proposed similar ideas. But the lack of physical evidence for the theory meant it was generally met with skepticism.

Antonio Snider-Pellegrini's Illustration of the closed and opened Atlantic Ocean (1858)

Even after Fred Vine and Drummond Matthews presented physical evidence that continents drifted in 1963, citing magnetic strips that appear symmetrically around mid ocean ridges, there was still widespread disbelief. As Vine says;

‘in general, it went over like a lead balloon. That might seem surprising now, but most people didn’t believe it…they called it a startling, improbable idea.’

Had the science media operated then as it does now, there would no doubt have been headlines claiming the theory had been proved at this early stage, long before the cautious scientific establishment agreed. But it took, quite rightly, repeated publications and confirmatory data to really establish plate tectonics as the driving force behind contintental drift. As Science Media Centre Director Fiona Fox said in her evidence to the Leveson enquiry, headlines claiming ‘breakthroughs’ rarely present the end stages of research, but more often the first tentative steps.

In the case of plate tectonics, it was only a few years before a culmination of evidence and research carried out by numerous scientists began to turn skepticism to acceptance. What a shame Darwin wasn’t around to witness the excitement of that time, when centuries of theorising about the earth’s continents finally paid off with the brilliant work of Fred Vine, Dan McKenzie and so many others.

Visit our YouTube channel for more clips from the film…

About sarah

Sarah is our Earth Science Communicator, responsible for media relations, podcasts and other outreach activity.
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4 Responses to The origins of plate tectonics

  1. Duncan Hawley says:

    1. Readers may be interested to read an ebook about the history of ideas and debates relating to continental drift and plate tectonics ‘Fixists vs Mobilists’ by Alan Krill – the first chapter can be downloaded at http://www.fixists.com/
    A fascinating read which develops a more comprehensive picture of the history of our current ideas than is often portrayed.

    2. The reluctance to accept the theory of continental drift and plate tectonics is celebrated on You Tube with an amusing and entertaining song and video by the band ‘The Amoeba People’ who ‘perform’ their songs (in this case by animated video).
    This video is a great way to introduce young people to the concept of plate tectonics and the notion that that current paradigms have not always been accepted
    “The Amoeba People present “The Posthumous Triumph of Alfred Wegener”, the sad but true story of a scientist and his hypothesis.”

    The Amoeba People’s songs are based on scientific (or science-fiction) ideas and they have a particular liking for things geological. They describe themselves as:
    “On stage, The Amoeba People bring to the people of Earth a show featuring songs, sound waves, and seismographs. This exploration into the nature of sound and energy on planet Earth involves guitars, drums, keyboards, hand bells, steel guitars, vocoders, office supplies, uber-dope dance moves and even a battle between man and machine! The Amoeba People live show is unlike any other live performance for curious youngsters and their adult counterparts anywhere on the planet!”

    An acoustic version of the song is at http://theamoebapeople.bandcamp.com/track/the-posthumous-triumph-of-alfred-wegener-acoustic-version

    The lyrics to ‘The Posthumous Triumph of Alfred Wegener’ :

    In the year of 1910 there was a scientist
    Whose name was Alfred Wegener
    He noticed that the continents looked just like
    Pieces of a broken puzzle

    By 1915 he called it Continental Drift
    It caused a rift
    With his fellow scientists (who sang)

    Ha! Ha! Alfred Wegener!
    You are a crazy man!
    Ha! Ha! Alfred Wegener!
    You are a crazy little man!

    They reminded him he had no proof
    For how or why the continents could do this
    And until you show just how or why
    You merely have one interesting hypothesis

    Until this evidence we see
    You don’t have a theory

    Ha! Ha! Alfred Wegener!
    You are a crazy man!
    Ha! Ha! Alfred Wegener!
    You are a crazy little man!

    In the year of 1930
    On an expedition to Greenland
    Wegener got caught in a blizzard
    When they finally found him
    It was much, oh much too late
    And they buried him in an icy mausoleum

    30 years after he died
    A new idea came to light
    Plate Tectonics, Plate Tectonics
    It changed the way geologists saw the world
    And brought Continental Drift back to life

    Now everybody sings:

    Yee haw! Alfred Wegener!
    You are a brilliant man!
    Yee haw! Alfred Wegener!
    You are a brilliant, brilliant man!

    Continental Drift!
    Alfred Wegener’s theory!
    Continental Drift!
    Alfred Wegener’s theory!
    Continental Drift!
    Alfred Wegener’s theory!
    Continental Drift!
    Alfred Wegener’s brilliant theory!

    A visit their website is worth a visit (for amusement if nothing else) at

    http://theamoebapeople.com/

  2. Pingback: Flippin’ Earth | Geological Society of London blog

  3. Pingback: Darwin and Concepcion, 1835 | A Step on the Road

  4. Pingback: Door 6: Four geologists you didn’t know were geologists | Geological Society of London blog

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