by Andy Rich, ’20
In 1915 German meteorologist Alfred Wegener published the first edition of his book Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane. It was unbeknownst to the scientific community at the time, but Wegener’s book, along with its three subsequent revisions would be revolutionary to natural science. What this young man had proposed was the hypothesis of continental drift.
The hypothesis of continental drift, which would be promoted to the scientific theory of plate tectonics long after his death, is a pivotal concept in natural sciences. This concept is especially vital in the geologic community, the very community that constantly denied Wegener and halted the acceptance of his hypothesis time and time again. Wegener’s finding were not accepted for multiple reasons, the strongest and most prominent of these reasons being the biases geologic professors. With the momentous blockage they issued to Wegener’s hypothesis it is stupefying how it was able to become so successful. The reason why Wegener succeeded in the end, albeit long after his death, was because he was armed with both empirical data and unyielding determination.
Wegener believed that science should be a wholly objective study. With this in mind he opened the forward of the fourth volume of his book with, “[s]cientists still do not appear to understand sufficiently that all earth sciences must contribute evidence unveiling the state of our planet in earlier times, and that the truth of the matter can only be reached by combining all this evidence.” At the time, the scientific fields were highly subjective and resistant to change. Geologists ignored Wegener’s evidence simply because he lacked the title and the veteran status of a geological professor. Wegener was appalled by this display of these supposed leading intellectuals. He states that “[i]t would be easy to add to the list of such opinions, each scientist deeming his own field to be the one most competent, or indeed the only competent one, to judge the issue,” but he believed doing the work of “issuing opinions”should never happen in the sciences.
Each time Wegener was dismissed and his work rejected he saw an opportunity to collect more empirical data on his hypothesis. The only factor that gave Wegener the strength to face such harsh judgement and rejection multiple times over was his unconquerable conviction. Wegener even credited his willpower in the fourth volume of his book by informing the reader that, “[t]his conviction gave me the stimulus to continue at times when my spirit failed me during the revision of this book.”
The original idea behind continental drift came about when he was writing a letter to his fiancé and he noted how on a map the continents looked like a jigsaw puzzle. Wegener became increasingly fascinated in how these pieces would fit together, leading to his traveling to various coastlines to examine where connection points with other continents looked incredibly possible. After extensive searching Wegener found compelling fossil and stratigraphic evidence for his hypothesis. It would lead to him writing the first volume of his book. Wegener discovered that fossils of Mesosaurus and Glossopteris, an extinct aquatic reptile and an extinct fern respectively, were found in Permian rock layers across shorelines of both South America and Africa. The presence of these fossils on their own seems to be an
almost trivial point at first glance, it could have been countered by points such as the now defunct land-bridge theory or by simple coincidence. Wegener combined his findings with geological research methods, empiricism, and logic.
Geology as a science functions under Occam’s Razor, the idea that the simplest solution to a proposed question is the most likely. Wegener’s hypothesis that the plates drift over long expanses of time works as the simplest answer in this case, he explains to the scientific community, “…we must turn almost exclusively to the geological evidence to decide the probability of this hypothesis (continental drift)…” The idea of Mesosaurus migrating up to 2575 km. to span the distance between South America and Africa (which is where the fossils were found) is highly unlikely, and the idea that the non-motile fern genus Glossopteris could migrate even further is even less likely. Coincidence is actually the most complex of these proposed answers, as evolution of varying different lifeforms is a methodical, in-depth, and time expansive process. Saying that Glossopteris evolved multiple times across multiple continents, all within the Permian period goes against all laws of probability.
The deposition of the fossils Wegener used as evidence only showed the end result of a much larger process. Wegener speculated on seafloor spreading, which is a theory that would be refined much later; but he did not pursue it in depth. Rather Wegener used the idea of the seafloor moving apart as a way to explain the major point of his hypothesis: the continents are slowly shifting and were once connected. This led to Wegener’s original hypothesis to grow, now including the additional hypothesis of Pangaea. The basis of the Pangaea hypothesis (now theory)is that at one point in time all of the
continents of Earth formed a singular supercontinent, or as Wegener explained, “[a]t a specified time earth can have had just one configuration.” This bold claim made sense of what Wegener had collected in terms of empirical data and observations.
Despite the impressive list of evidence supporting the hypothesis of continental drift, geologists still worked to deny Wegener’s work still purely on his lack of credentials. A geologist from Leipzig, Franz Kossmat, provided documented resistance to Wegener’s claims at a symposium held strictly to discredit Wegener. Kossmat claimed at this symposium that continents could not move across the ocean floor because it was too hard.
Such ridicule continued to drive Wegener further and further to prove the merit of his hypothesis to the geological community. His last expedition for the sake of his hypothesis was in 1930, when he and an expedition group traveled to Greenland. Wegener was separated from his expedition group during a terrible snowstorm and his body was never recovered.
Wegener’s ultimately fatal passion provided the modern geological community with vital hypotheses that would be refined by later generations. Without having had Wegener lay the foundation for the theory of plate tectonics, the modern science era would not be as advanced as it is now. Numerous discoveries of Earth processes were built off of the works of Wegener. His striving for purely empirical science yielded tremendous results and serves as a strong reminder that science needs to be approached as an objective study. Subjective science can still be a flaw in the modern science era and revisiting Wegener shows why that must be avoided.