One Man's Theories Shot Down By Closed Minds

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In the winter of 1930, while leading his third expedition to the frozen top of the world to investigate the thermodynamics of Greenland's atmosphere and the thickness of the polar ice cap, a man named Alfred Lothar Wegener died.

You've probably never heard of him. Most people haven't. But if you went through school after the late 1960s, you probably remember something you were taught about what is now called "plate tectonics," an accepted theory that the surface of the Earth is composed of giant plates that move about, crashing into each other and causing earthquakes, volcanoes, tidal waves and mountain chains.

In 1912, Wegener proposed exactly just such a theory. He called it "continental drift," but you're never going to see his name in the science books. The reason you're not going to see it there is very enlightening.

Wegener noticed that Africa and South America fit together like two pieces of a picture puzzle. When he began to compare the edges of the other continents, he discovered that, with a little turning and twisting, they also fit together.

He looked around for additional evidence that the continents might all have been part of a single giant continent some time in the past and discovered startling verification.

To begin with, he found layers of stone on either side of the Atlantic that matched up perfectly, both in their composition and their north-south location. Even rare things like coal beds and fossil beds matched up. So did the time when ice ages had occurred in the now widely separated continents, something which strongly suggested they had all been together when those ice ages occurred. And there was other evidence to support his theory.

He submitted his theory to the scientific community.

The reception? His theory was called, among other things, "utter, damned rot."

Why?

They already had a theory. It proposed that the Earth was cooling and shrinking (it's not), thereby causing a smaller surface area, with the result that the Earth's surface was "wrinkling." Such "wrinkles" were things like the Rockies, the Sierras and the Himalayas.

In response to the evidence that Africa and South America shared identical strata, they claimed that a "land bridge" had existed between Africa and South America, running clear across the almost 2,000 mile wide, and over two mile deep, Atlantic Ocean between Africa and South America.

They did not explain where all that fill was piled up when the Atlantic was dredged out.

"Prove it," they demanded of Wegener -- despite the fact that they had no proof of their own theory. "Show us how it works."

Since the scientific equipment of the day was incapable of measuring such things as the fact that Europe and North America are drifting apart about a centimeter a year, he couldn't do it.

So they stayed with their own totally unproven pet theory, as ridiculous as it was even on the face of it, and told Wegener that unless he could prove his theory, he was wrong. All this was despite the fact that the evidence strongly suggested that he was correct, which time has clearly shown to be true.

So what?

Well, the next time a scientist accuses someone of having a closed mind (and I am a scientist, so I have a right to speak), remind him of Alfred Wegener. Unfortunately, you may have to tell him who Wegener was.

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