A Geologist Way Ahead of His Time

Alfred Wegener: The Father of Continental Drift. Martin Schwarzbach. Translated by Carla Love. Science Tech, Madison, WI, 1986. 241 pp. $35. German meteorologist Alfred Wegener, 1880-1930, was the most systematic and visible of the few early advocates of continental drift. Working in part with his father-in-law, renowned climatologist Wiadimir Koppen, Wegener recognized that various geologic and paleontologic features, including the distribution of indicators of paleoclimates, required very diff

By | April 6, 1987

Alfred Wegener: The Father of Continental Drift. Martin Schwarzbach. Translated by Carla Love. Science Tech, Madison, WI, 1986. 241 pp. $35.


German meteorologist Alfred Wegener, 1880-1930, was the most systematic and visible of the few early advocates of continental drift. Working in part with his father-in-law, renowned climatologist Wiadimir Koppen, Wegener recognized that various geologic and paleontologic features, including the distribution of indicators of paleoclimates, required very different arrangements of the continents in the past than at the present.

Wegener deduced, correctly, that oceans are underlain by dense rocks and continents by light rocks, but he erred in arguing that the continents were rafts floating about in the dense material. He died in 1930 on the Greenland ice cap, victim of his own inept planning and execution of a middle-scale replay of Robert F. Scott's second Antarctic expedition, complete with ponies and untested vehicles.

Wegener was dismissed as a presumptive amateur by most geologists and geophysicists of his time. Of the few who supported the better of his conclusions, several developed powerful evidence for the reality of continental drift. By 1937, with the publication of Our Wandering Continents by Alexander DuToit of South Africa, that reality was effectively proved even though most geoscientists remained unaware. Not until the 1960s—when paleomagnetic indicators of past latitudes were found to be compatible with geologic ones and when geophysical studies of the ocean floors led to proof that continents are but parts of much larger moving plates—did the realization become general that continents do indeed wander, albeit with mechanisms utterly unlike those visualized by Wegener, who was brilliantly ahead of his time despite the meagerness of his geologic and geophysical knowledge.

This book is translated from a 1980 German volume by Martin Schwarzbach, retired Cologne professor of geology and paleoclimatology. He notes little but the positive regarding Wegener and yet does poorly by his important subject. The sketchy biographic information is impersonal and disorganized. Schwarzbach's analysis of Wegener's contributions and of the controversies that surrounded and postdated him is superficial.

Schwarzbach gives little exposition of Wegener's major insights and the evidence whence they came. He leaves unmentioned Wegener's foolish assumptions, such as that most of the separation of Europe and North America occurred during the Quaternary. He treats the bungled Greenland expedition as merely unlucky, and his uncomprehending discussion of the evidence for and the concepts of plate tectonics will confuse any lay reader.

This English edition includes a reprint of a 1962 narrative by Wegener's student and associate on the 1930 expedition, Johannes Georgi. Also appended is a reprint of a chapter on the evolution of concepts of continental drift and plate tectonics from a 1985 book by Harvard historian I. Bernard Cohen. Although Cohen does a creditable job of evaluating pre-1960 events, like Schwarzbach, he muddles everything regarding plate tectonics.

Hamilton is a research geologist with the Branch of Geophysics, U.S. Geological Survey, Denver, CO 80225.

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