The Copernicus of Geosciences: Alfred Wegener presented his revolutionary theory of continental drift 100 years ago
Bremerhaven, December 21, 2011. On 6 January 1912, the annual meeting of the Geological Association in Frankfurt, Germany witnessed the spectacle of one man against the world. On this date, the meteorologist Alfred Wegener, then 31, gave his talk on the formation of oceans and continents, and in the process shook the foundations of accepted doctrine. The Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research will celebrate its namesake on the hundredth anniversary of his theory. Together with the Senckenberg Museum, the AWI will host a commemorative colloquium at the historic scene of Wegener’s presentation in Frankfurt.
Geology professor Max Semper was not at all amused by the way the scientific year kicked off in 1912: “O holy Saint Florian, spare my house, kindle others,” the scientist intoned. What had happened? Who was the arsonist against whom Semper was warning?
The name of the supposed evildoer was Alfred Wegener, then 31. A meteorologist and lecturer of cosmic physics at the University of Marburg, he had presented his revolutionary theory on the formation of continents and oceans at the meeting of the Geological Association in Frankfurt on January 6, 1912. “His core thesis was that the gross form of the earth’s surface, specifically the distributions of the continents and oceans, was constantly changing because the continents were moving,” says Dr. Reinhard Krause, science historian at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association. Wegener had also postulated that the earth’s surface as we know it today originated from a single land mass. Over the course of the earth’s history, the plates of this land mass had drifted apart, giving rise to the continents and oceans.
With his idea of drifting continents, the young scientist, though an outsider in this field, was able to easily explain many findings of geologists, paleontologists and animal and plant geographers. However, Wegener was mistaken in his assumption that researchers like Max Semper would abandon their old theories on the development of the earth’s surface after hearing his talk. At that time, Wegener gave the old way of thinking ten years at most. “But in the end, half a century passed before Wegener’s ideas became generally accepted among experts. Although a few scientists received Wegener’s theory with enthusiasm, the majority, particularly the geology world, rejected it,” explains Reinhard Krause.
This rejection, which took on hateful and belligerent forms as well, was not unjustified, however. “At that time, Wegener was unable to name any forces or mechanisms that would be sufficient to move continents,” Reinhard Krause says. Wegener himself was entirely aware of this deficiency, yet he never doubted the fundamental correctness of his hypotheses. One day, he wrote, the “Newton of continental drift theory” would come, and in the meantime Wegener himself set out to find new and better arguments for his hypothesis.
However, Wegener was unable to find a satisfactory explanation for the mechanism that moved the continents. At that time, the state and the dynamics of the earth’s core were simply not well enough understood. It took Wegener’s scientific colleagues until the early 1960s to make the leap from Wegener’s theory to modern plate tectonics, which today is regarded as the proven scientific consensus, using modern geomagnetic research methods. Briefly stated, plate tectonics says that the lithosphere, the outer, solid shell of the earth, is broken up into rigid plates. These plates float on the highly viscous rock of the underlying asthenosphere and move just a few centimetres every year – entirely independently of each other.
Today, Wegener is considered “the father of plate tectonics”. “In retrospect, however, we can also call him the Copernicus of geosciences, because Wegener revolutionized our picture of the earth and initially endured a storm of scorn and mockery,” observes Reinhard Krause. But Alfred Wegener, who achieved fame primarily as a polar researcher, was unable to experience his vindication. He died on Greenland’s inland ice in 1930, probably due to heart failure.
The Alfred Wegener Institute is honouring its namesake on the 100th anniversary in two ways at once. Firstly, the Alfred Wegener Institute, in cooperation with the Senckenberg Institute, is organizing a scientific anniversary colloquium at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt – where Wegener first announced his theory 100 years ago – on January 6, 2012. At 6 p.m., AWI science historian Dr. Reinhard Krause will also present a public talk there on “The pioneering thinker of the geosciences”.
Additionally, the Alfred Wegener Institute has acquired a previously unknown original letter written by Wegener and presented it to the Institute’s Archive for German Polar Research. In this three-page letter dated October 16, 1928, Alfred Wegener is responding to a German living in Chile who had previously sent Wegener a manuscript with his own ideas on the continental drift theory and solicited the scientist’s opinion. As he was short of time, Wegener’s answer is rather brief. He apologizes to his correspondent with the words, “I am … in the midst of preparations for a Greenland expedition that … are consuming every last minute of my time (…) I hope that you will consider this lack of time as a sufficient excuse for my, as I consider it, too hasty ‘dispatch’ of your request (...) With the greatest respect, yours faithfully, Prof. Alfred Wegener.”
Notes for editors:
You can find historic photos of Alfred Wegener and images of the newly acquired letter in an image gallery here: http://www.awi.de/en/news/focus/2012/the_100th_anniversary_of_alfred_wegeners_continental_drift_theory/picture_gallery/
Concurrently with the Wegener anniversary event, the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt is presenting a special exhibition: WELTBEWEGEND – Alfred Wegeners Theorie wird 100 (“MOVING THE EARTH – Alfred Wegener’s Theory Turns 100”). The flyer for this exhibition can be downloaded as a PDF file (German version).
Your contact persons at the Alfred Wegener Institute are Dr. Reinhard Krause (Tel: + 49 (0) 471 4831-1924; email: Reinhard.Krause@awi.de) and Sina Löschke (Tel: + 49 (0) 471 4831-2008; email: Sina.Loeschke@awi.de) in the Department of Communications and Media Relations.
The Alfred Wegener Institute conducts research in the Arctic, and Antarctic and the oceans at medium and high latitudes. It coordinates polar research in Germany and provides essential infrastructure, such as the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations in the Arctic and Antarctic, for international scientific efforts. The Alfred Wegener Institute is one of the 17 research centres of the Helmholtz Association, Germany’s largest scientific organization.
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The Alfred Wegener Institute pursues research in the polar regions and the oceans of mid and high latitudes. As one of the 19 centres of the Helmholtz Association it coordinates polar research in Germany and provides ships like the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations for the international scientific community.