“crackpots” who were right 2: Alfred Wegener

The story of Alfred Wegener and his theory of continental drift is one of the most cited instances of an outsider who proposed a radical theory that was dismissed by the experts in the field. Of course he turned out to be right. Wegener was a conscientious scientist who had gained a doctorate in astronomy, but he was also a daring explorer who made expeditions in the arctic and held the record for the longest hot air balloon ride. This meant he observed the geology of the Earth first hand but he was not a trained geologist influenced by the favoured theories of the day. 

Some time before 1903 he had noticed that the coastline of the American continents matched the shape of Africa and Europe in surprising detail. His theory based on this was simply that the continents had once been joined together in a supercontinent he called Pangea. In fact this had been remarked upon by many others before him and there had been plenty of theories to explain it. Some had thought that the earth had originally been fully covered in a crust, but the earth expanded and it broke apart  with water filling in the cracks to form the oceans. Superficially such an idea looked right at the time, but science requires proper investigation based on theory and observation and the expanding earth theory just did not hold up.

If Wegener had just stopped there he would have been just one of many people with the same idea but he started to look for evidence. He noticed that the geology of the continents actually coincided at the points where he imagined they had broken apart, even to the extent that coal seams on either side of the Atlantic can be matched up. His confidence in his theory was boosted.

Another unsolved problem of the day was how animal life on Earth had spread to continents that seemed disconnected, especially Australia. From the fossil record it seemed that similar species existed on different continents at the same time as if they had somehow crossed over the wide ocean. Wegener saw this as strong evidence for continental drift but two other competing theories sprang up. One said that there had been land bridges that joined the continents before collapsing. The third theory was that the continents had not changed much at all, and the animals had spread via existing land routes that were sometimes frozen over. Some similarities were attributed to convergent evolution or just plain coincidence.

With hindsight we can see that Wegener had the best evidence in his favour, but he was not regarded as an expert in geology.  The people who were regarded as experts were not ready to accept the new idea and so they attacked it. They criticised continental drift on the grounds that the land could not float on the ocean crusts as if it was a fluid. Indeed Wegener did not have a fully formed theory of how continental drift worked but he had considered it beyond the point at which he was being attacked. He was aware of the mid-ocean ridges and suspected that the oceanic crusts were spreading out from there, as indeed they were.

Some of the attacks on Wegener were quite vehement. His theory was called  preposterous, antiquated, a serious error, footloose and dangerous. He won support from some lesser geologists but his opponents were considered the authorities and no amount of evidence or reason was ever going to convince them at that time. Wegener died young when an Arctic expedition turned to tragedy in 1930. After that,  little progress was made until the 1950s when people started to look at how rocks were magnetised. This provided almost indisputable evidence that the land masses had moved and in 1953 Samuel Carey developed the theory of plate tectonics that finally explained the mechanism behind continental drift.

The moral of this story is that the experts in a subject are not always the best authorities. Sometimes they are too versed in current theories to see the truth of a new idea even when the evidence come up in its favour. Of course this does not mean that every crazy idea is going to be right, most are not, but ideas have to be judged on the best observational evidence and not on dogma. This is why when you learn something you should always question it. Just how good is the evidence? Don’t accept it because your teacher says it is right, but don’t reject it just because you don’t understand it either. The truth lies in reason and evidence and the mainstream view is sometimes still open to question. When new observations come along they sometimes show that earlier accepted ideas were wrong. Often we are left wondering why we were so sure of those previous ideas in the first place. The answer is sometimes just because they were written in the textbooks.

One Response to “crackpots” who were right 2: Alfred Wegener

  1. Fernando Loup says:

    Quoting Phillip Gibbs
    The people who were regarded as experts were not ready to accept the new idea and so they attacked it.
    The moral of this story is that the experts in a subject are not always the best authorities. Sometimes they are too versed in current theories to see the truth of a new idea even when the evidence come up in its favour. Of course this does not mean that every crazy idea is going to be right, most are not, but ideas have to be judged on the best observational evidence and not on dogma.

    Brilliant!!! Excellent!!!! Outstanding!!!! Remarkable!!!!

    i could add Shubrahmanian Chandrasekhar and Evarist Galois to the same ground of Alfred Wegener ..but first an examination of the “current” scientific process of evaluation of new ideas.

    The quotes above from Philip Gibbs resumes the failures of the “modern” scientific process of peer-review. A new idea that challenges the so-called “standard” scientific knowledge is rejected by the “experts” in the field without being rigorously examined.

    dear readers of the viXra blog Imagine that you write a paper in Physics and send it to a peer-review journal to be examined by the so-called “experts”..And imagine that your idea is a “check-mate” to the so-called “standard” scientific knowledge..your idea is a bold move..yes as you might guess you will be rejected if rejected you will (at least) receive the so-called “referee report” but there are two kinfs of “referee reports:

    1)-the correct and fair referee report that says for example “i examined your equation 37 and you made a mistake in the integration of the differential equation considering your initial conditions and in consequence all the subsequent results derived from equation 37 are all wrong and hence the conclusions of your paper …because this i stopped to read the paper at equation 37 and i will reject it”… Ok this is the correct peer-review process..there is nothing to say about this..there are no injustices or discriminations here … unfortunately this kind of report is very rare

    2)-the most common referee report that says for example “this idea have no place in the subject of the field..i would recommend the author reading the current leading research published papers in the field written by professionals before submit papers again” this is “un-helpful note” mentioned by Phillip Gibbs when mentioning peer-review journals in “Why viXra”

    Unfortunately (and i underline the word Unfortunately) this is the most common peer review process..ideas rejected without being rigorously examined…ideas that were”check-mate” to the so-called “standard” scientific knowledge this happened with Evarist Galois and Shubrahmanian Chandrasekhar..perhaps not all the readers of the viXra blog are familiar with these scientists so here we go with the resume

    Evarist Galois lived in the Century XVIII in France.At 18 years old he created the so-called “Group Theory”…the experts of mathematics of France in the Century XVIII Lagrange,Legendre and Laplace rejected the theory.one of them(i dont remember who) told that “this is impossible to be understood” .in consequence of this Galois never developed a career as a mathematician and died at age of 21 in a duel. 200 years later in the Century XX the Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie proved Galois Group Theory 100% right and now Galois is among the greatest mathematicians of all times…but unfortunately it was too late for him..

    Shubrahmanian Chandrasekhar came from India to England to study Einstein General Relativity under the supervision of the famous British astronomer Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington. At the age of 22 Chandrasekhar discovered that if a star is massive enough there are no forces able to stop gravity to contract the star to a point where the star will disappear from the Universe …Chandrasekhar arranged a meeting in the Royal Society to announce his discoveries ..Eddington rejected the Chandrasekhar idea in public,he spoke something in tne meetint like this “i think Nature certainly have mechanisms to avoid a star to achieve this fate”

    Before World War II Oppenheimer and Volkoff re-examined the calculations of Chandrasekhar and they proved Chandrasekhar is right….John Archibald Wheeler also examined Chandrasekhar calculations…the expression “black hole” to represent the point where the star disappears from the Universe was invented by Wheeler in 1983 Shubrahmanian Chandrasekhar received the Nobel Prize in Physics due to his discoveries…a star with up to 1,4 solar masses will become a white dwarf…between 1,4 and 2 solar masses will become a neutron star…between 2 and 3 solar masses will become a quark star..and a star with more than 3 solar masses will disappear from the Universe leaving a black hole in its place…fortunately it was not too late for him

    quoting Phillip Gibbs again
    Of course this does not mean that every crazy idea is going to be right, most are not

    yes most are not but an idea based over the most rigorous mathematical or scientifc knowledge and well constructed cannot be dismissed at first place without a detailed and rigorous examination.

    Shubrahmanian Chandrasekhar and Evarist Galois would certainly find their own(and more than deserved) places in the topic “Crackpots that were right”

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