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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Alfred Wegener, Drifting Continents, and an Animated Pangaea

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Wednesday, February 18, 2015/Categories: natural history, video, environment

Paradigm shifts in scientific thinking can be made by anyone with a keen curiosity, the patience, and good record-keeping to 'connect the dots' that others don't see. Many scientific "outsiders" were criticized, ignored, or considered crazed by the conventional wisdom of their day. Examples would include Marie Curie, a chemist who investigated the application of X-rays to medical diagnosis; Charles Darwin, a geologist who kept close biological observations of small changes in birds beaks that would build his thesis on evolution; and Gregor Mendel, a monk, who measured the mathematical ratios of inherited traits in garden peas that became the science of genetics. An observant a polar explorer,  Alfred Wegener , would change the entire understanding of the earth by his discovery of  continental drift , or plate tectonics.

Wegener spent much of his time exploring the Arctic around Greenland where he watched ice flows, glacial calving, and ice-packs melt and reform from freezing, and then floating about the polar seas like a big jigsaw puzzle. In 1915 he completed his publication, The Origin of Continents and Oceans , to "reestablish the connection between geophysics, geology, and geography which had become separate disciplines." Using similar fossils found on different continents, Wegener presented a theory that there once was a primordial super-continent,  Pangaea  from the Greeks, that came apart and the pieces floated off to form the continents today.

Wegener's Continental Drift Fossil Map and the Break-up of Super-continent Pangaea  (credit: Wiki-commons)

Wegener was widely ridiculed for his drifting continental thesis. Nearly 50 years were required until  paleomagnetism  was discovered and rocks from every continent could be tested until his "theory" become fact now known as plate tectonics. In 1915, Wegener had made one of the most important discoveries controlling geological and biological science, one of the earliest "big picture" analyses of how things really work on Earth..

A clever animation by the New York Times and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and presented by a new series,  Op-Docs , tells Wegener's story, continental drift, and the split of Pangaea:

Op-Docs, an Animated Life, Pangaea  (credit: NYT's & HHMI)

New and important scientific discoveries still need to be made by insightful individuals and collaborative teams but the likes of Mendel, Darwin, Curie, and Wegener show what is possible. You too might someday make a discovery that shifts the paradigm of a previous scientific dogma.


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