Alfred L. Wegener
(1 Nov 1880 - c. Nov 1930)
Alfred Wegener: The Father of Continental Drift
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[p.xiii] For everyone interested in the earth sciences, Alfred Wegener’s life is a fascinating story. Wegener was a remarkably versatile and creative scientist. He wrote his dissertation on a topic in astronomy. In his professional life he was primarily a meteorologist, and his textbook, Thermodynamik der Atmosphäre, which was written when he was thirty, went through several editions. In Graz, Austria, he was professor of meteorology and geophysics. However, from boyhood on his goal had always been to explore the Arctic, and he did, in fact, participate in four expeditions to Greenland, each of which demanded extraordinary amounts of physical endurance, “iron will, and energy.” Wegener’s explorations of Greenland also became well known to the general public through his entertaining accounts of his travels. Another feat of physical endurance—although perhaps more trivial—was the world record in ballooning set by Wegener and his brother Kurt, when they were in their twenties.
His true and lasting importance, however, is found in an entirely different field. In 1912 he published, for the first time, his revolutionary hypothesis that the continents are not fixed but rather have been slowly wandering during the course of earth history. This idea, which became known as “continental drift,”* was not completely new, but Wegener was the first to develop it in depth.
This hypothesis made it possible to solve many different geological and geophysical problems. Seldom has a new set of [p. xiv] ideas about the origin of the earth’s crust, mountain ranges, and oceans had such a revitalizing effect as did Wegener’s theory of continental drift. After Wegener’s hypothesis, climatic changes in geologic time now also appeared in a new light: In this field Wegener’s collaborative work with his father-in-law, the climatologist Wladimir Köppen, would be particularly important.
In many respects, the verification of Wegener’s hypothesis of continental drift was as problematic as its formulation was [p.xv] revolutionary. A number of geological and geophysical arguments in its favor turned out to be unsound, and during his lifetime Wegener was unable to win acceptance for his theory, either in Europe or America—not least because as an “outsider” he was not taken seriously by many geologists.
Only after World War II did completely new data—especially from modern deepsea exploration and from research into the earth’s ancient magnetic field—lead to a more coherent synthesis, “plate tectonics”, [p.xvi] which, [ever since], has dominated discussion of the continents and oceans, earthquakes and volcanoes, and the formation of the great mountain chains.
Although many details of this theory, too, are disputed, it provides a much more consistent and complete picture than Wegener was able to sketch. As far as the end result is concerned, the correctness of Wegener’s theory of continental drift can be affirmed today: parts of the earth crust are moving. On that point Wegener’s hypothesis and the hypothesis of plate tectonics coincide. But otherwise they are two completely different theories.
At first, Wegener was ridiculed as a “teller of tall tales”; in the end he was compared to the great Copernicus … as a “revolutionary” in the realm of the earth sciences, …
*The term “continental drift” did not become popular in the English language until the 1920s, although Wegener first published his revolutionary hypothesis in 1912. Wegener himself used the German word “Verschiebung” (English, “displacement”) and used the word “drift” in later publications only after the term had received wide usage in English.