Global Tectonics Centenary: Any Inspiring Papers?

Although Alfred Wegener first began to present his ideas on Continental Drift in 1912 his publication in 1915 of The Origin of Continents and Oceans (Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane) is generally taken as the global launch of his hypothesis. Apart from support from Alexander du Toit and Arthur Holmes, geoluminaries of the day panned it unmercifully because, in the absence of evidence for a driving mechanism, he speculated that his proposed ‘urkontinent’ (primal continent) Pangaea had been split apart by a centrifugal mechanism connected to the precession of Earth’s rotational axis. This ‘polflucht’ (flight from the poles) is in fact far too weak to have any such influence. Wegener’s masterly assembly of geological evidence for former links between the major continents was ignored by the critics, suggesting that their motive for excoriation of his suggested mechanism was as much spite against an ‘outsider’ as a full consideration of his hypothesis. It must have been hurtful in the extreme, yet Wegener defended himself with a series of revised editions that amassed yet more concrete evidence. What is often overlooked, even now that his ideas have become part of the geoscientific canon, is that in his initial Geologische Rundschau paper in 1912 he mused that the floor of the Atlantic is continuously spreading by tearing apart at the mid-Atlantic Ridge where ‘relatively fluid and hot sima’ rises. Strangely, he dropped that idea in later works. Anyhow, neither 2012 nor 2015 was celebrated in the manner of the centenary-and-a-half of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: 2009 was marked by palaeobiologists and geneticists metaphorically dancing in the streets, if not foaming at the mouth. There have been a few paragraphs, and some minor symposia about Wegener’s dragging geology out of the 18th century and into the 20th, but that’s about it. The best centenary item I have seen is by Marco Romano and Richard Cifelli (Romano, M. & Cifelli, R.L. 2015. 100 years of continental drift. Science, v. 350, p. 916-916).

In the shape of plate tectonics the Earth sciences hosted what was truly a revolution in science, albeit 50 years on from its discoverer’s announcement. It was through the persistent agitation by his tiny band of supporters, that the upheaval was unleashed when the revelations from palaeomagnetism, seismology and many other lines of evidence were resolved as plate tectonics by the discovery of ocean-floor magnetic stripes by Vine, Matthews and Morley in 1963. Despite an explosion of papers that followed, elaborating onthe new theory and showing examples of its influence on ‘big’ geology , counter-revolutionary resistance lasted almost to the first years of the new century. By then so much evidence had emerged from every geological Eon that opponents looked truly stupid. Even so, the skepticism among those sub-disciplines that were ‘left out’ of geodynamic thought continued to blurt out with the emergence of other exciting aspects of the Earth’s history. I remember that, when three of us in the Open University’s Department of Earth Sciences proposed in 1994 that the influence of impacts by extraterrestrial objects ought to figure in a new course on the evolution of Earth and Life we were sneered at as ‘whizz-bang kids’ by those more earth-bound. Trying belatedly in 1996 to introduce students to another revolutionary development – the use of sedimentary and glacial oxygen isotopes in unraveling past climate change – became a huge struggle in the OU’s Faculty of Science. It went to the press eventually and for 2 years our students had the benefit. But the murmuration of dissent ended with a force-majeur re-edit of the course, by someone who had played no role in its development, expunged the lot and changed the ‘offending’ section back to the way it had been a decade before.  As they say: ho hum!

Oddly, in the last 15 years or so of trying to follow in Earth-Pages what I considered to be the most exciting developments in the geosciences, it has become increasing difficult to find papers in the top journals that are truly ground-breaking. Of course that may just be ageing and a certain cynicism that often companies it. From being spoiled for choice week after week it has become increasingly difficult from month to month to maintain the standards that I have set for new work. Has Earth science entered the fifth phase of a ‘paradigm shift’ predicted by philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? According to him once a science has entered a period when there is little consensus on the theories that might lie at the root of natural processes there is a drift in opinion to a few conceptual frameworks that seem to work, albeit leaving a lot to be desired. Weaknesses at the frontier between theory and empirical knowledge become increasingly burdensome as a result of the steady plod of ‘normal science’ until the science in question reaches a crisis. If existing paradigms fail repeatedly, science is ripe for the metaphorical equivalent of a ‘Big Bang’: maybe an entirely new discovery or hypothesis, or an idea that has been suppressed which new data fits better than any others that have been common currency. Plate Tectonics is the second kind. After the revolution much is reexamined and new lines of work emerge, until in Kuhn’s 5th phase scientists return to ‘normal science’. That looks like a pretty good story, on paper, but other forces are at work in science; external to scientific objectives. Most of these are a blend of economics, political ideologies and managerial ‘practicalities’. If the Earth sciences have entered the doldrums of novelty, I suspect it is these forces that are bearing some kind of glum fruit.

The old concept of academic freedom has gone by the board. Institutions demand that research is externally funded – the more the better as the institution, at least in the UK, demands a kind of tax (40% of that proposed) supposedly to cover corporate overheads including salaries of support staff. If an academic doesn’t pull in the dosh, she is not much favoured. If the individual doesn’t publish regularly either, there is a weasel sanction: Josephine Soap is declared ‘research inactive’. Consortia of researchers are more and more in vogue: managers and funders like ‘team players’, so individuals who are bright and confident enough to ‘stick their necks out’ cannot do that in a consortium publication and as often as not are ‘left on the bench’. Risk taking is more dangerous now and to stay ‘research active’, and in many cases of non-tenured posts getting a salary, an individual, even a few like-minded colleagues have to publish 2 or 3 papers a year.

It’s worth mentioning that open access publishing is not just all the rage, it has become more or less compulsory. Of course, it has some benefits for scientists in less well-heeled countries, but there is a downside. You have to raise the cash demanded by journals for the privilege or potentially universal access – at least US$1000 a pop, depending on a journals Impact Factor, and that of course is an odiously essential corporate consideration – and having done that woe betide those who do not publish and spend it. Academic publishing is the most profitable sector of the trade, the more so as print is supplanted by electronic delivery – the 50 free reprints is a thing of the past. So there are more and more journals and each of them strives to get out more issues per year, and of course those have to be filled. To me, this all adds up to more and more ‘pot-boiler’ articles and a tendency to maximise the flesh rendered from the body of research work and into the pot. Taken together with the stresses of commodification in higher education and the now vertical corporate structures from which it is constituted, it shouldn’t be a surprise that excitement and inspiration are at a premium in the weekly and monthly output of such a marginal science as that concerned with how the world works.

14 thoughts on “Global Tectonics Centenary: Any Inspiring Papers?

  1. Steve, I did my geology degree in the mid-70s, but never used it. However, geology has forever been a passion of mine, and discovering your blog has allowed me to catch up on some exciting developments, and the re-emergence of theories that have been poo-poohed (Verne Shots?). Maybe the exciting stuff will come from our extra-terrestrial neighbours, given the stunning images coming back of Pluto. Whatever…just want to say that the blog has pushed me to want to share all the excitement I felt when I was learning, and here at least in Cheshire, is breeding a lot of kids who are eager to join in. Keep up the great work!!


    1. Dear Chris, many thanks for your encouraging comments – I don’t get many, but because the monthly hits have gone up from about 500 when I first saw them on WordPress in about 2008 to just short of 10 000 last month, I know that there are a great many people worldwide who are deeply interested. The trouble is, geology has become a minor science as far as secondary and higher education are concerned. Since I retired from the OU (I still have a ‘senior fellowship’ there), first it axed geology residential courses and now presents about 1/4 to 1/5 of a degrees worth of geosciences in the broadest sense. If there are kids wanting to beat a path to learn some in Cheshire (not well known for its geodiversity, apart from salt: sorry!) demand nationally must be huge. About time HE woke up to people not economy! I know people do get excited by Mars, Jovian satellites, Pluto etc, but you can’t ‘make love to the rocks’ as our first prof Ian Gass always used to say on the first day for our students in the field. Afraid the offerings by the BBC these days are more about presenters showing off than properly teaching what is possible. Best wishes


  2. I did ‘A’ Level Geology, in 1974. Our enlightened teacher, Mrs. Gillham, took us all to London, to a wonder-full exhibition at the Natural History Museum, centred on Plate Tectonics. That shook me up.
    You’re right, what is seen to ‘matter’ in education, has changed a great deal in recent decades. The Arts have suffered very much from this, as they really aren’t seen as being ‘useful’.
    A few decades isn’t much though, things can change again – think geologically!


    1. Thanks for the comment Bernie. As they say, it’s been like the old bus-stop joke with this item – you wait ages for one then 4 turn up at the same time! I used to think there was a crisis in science, but it’s right through the education system. Best wishes, Steve.


  3. Steve, the biting comment on global tectonics (GT) is a breath of fresh air. As Kuhn put it, a new paradigm’s dominance shift does not necessarily involve the abandoning of a theory but changes the way terms are defined, and what rules are used to determine the truth. All this reminds me the replay given by Hans E. Suess (1909-1993), dubbed” the pope of C-14 dates”, to Heinrich Waenke –both teaching at the University of California in San Diego, and recalled by Waenke in a biographical memoir of the US National Academy of Sciences in 2005. Waenke told Suess sadly that students’ eyes glazed over a fundamental book of quantum mechanics in favor of a college cookbook. Suess replied “People often confuse two unrelated ideas. One is ‘simple’ and the other is ‘elementary.” I think plate tectonics is ‘simple’, that’s the reason of being a popular theory. ‘Elementary’ ideas are not catching. Has it something to do with the academic freedom gone by the board today?

    People who met Suess for the first time – once again recalled by professor Waenke in his memoir – gave the impression he was not a hard worker. But Suess always picked important research problems, and spent most of his time thinking about them, and experimental work only used to confirm the insights. Meeting with American colleagues always busy with department meetings, writing proposals and organizing conferences, Suess used to ask “When do you have time to think?” There was never a suitable answer. Isn’t this the real problem today?


    1. Nice insight Franco. It’s godd to get a comment from someone who has, along with Chorowicz and Collet, produced some paradigm shifting work, especially on the Pan African and Afar, but before Earth Pages started. I especially liked the paper on Danakil – a place I’d like to visit, but probably never shall. Best wishes, Steve D


      1. Steve, it’s amazing how you remember the paradigm shifting work on GRL, and not that I’ve used published data only. Could it be written differently? Yes, it would not have gone beyond the editors’ desk before being rejected – it would be too long to explain. It did not come to me right away, but I consider that paper the turning point of looking at geology without the glorification I had for it. Despite some changes, nothing seems to have reached yet the level to be called an inspiring paper. Let’s hope Earth Pages will soon tell us. Best wishes to you too. Franco


  4. Much though I thoroughly enjoyed being in one of the best ‘right places’ at the right time in the ‘Earth Science Revolution’ when I was in Geophysics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1969-1972, I will always cherish my A-level geography teachers in this context too, for advocating Continental Drift in the late 1950s in the face of the then prevailing opposition from learned geology text book authors. But my teachers told us to read Wegener, Du Toit and Holmes. It’s often overlooked that physical geographers of the day were generally in favour, while many geologists and geophysicists insisted that there ‘wasn’t any known mechanism’. Fair enough, but as you say, science doesn’t always work like that.


    1. Like you, Brian, it was my geography teachers who enthused me for geology. But for them I’d probably have been a mediocre physicist! But, oddly, Birmingham University in the 60’s was great for the Archaean but totally benighted as regards plate tectonics! So much so, that I didn’t come across any of the seminal work until I had to teach a course on plate theory in 1971, while a post-doc at the University of Alberta. Being just a week ahead of the students concentrates the mind wonderfully! Best wishes, Steve


  5. In reply to Bernie Bell:

    I have been at the NHM since 1972. The excellent exhibition to which you refer was almost certainly ‘The Story of the Earth’, the scientific conception and content being due to Fred Dunning. The exhibition was on the ground floor of the then Geological Museum (not NHM) which was part of the Institute of Geological Sciences, now British Geological Survey (BGS). IGS/BGS later vacated their Museum building responsibility for whose exhibitions was then incorporated into the NHM. BGS also relinquished the role of running a national museum of geology altogether. BGS are now based at Keyworth in Nottinghamshire, which does include some exhibits. The NHM inherited the earth science commitment of the Geological Museum, and eventually refurbished the entire exhibition contents of that building with its own new exhibitions in the late 1990s. These exhibits are known collectively as ‘The Earth Galleries’ (which I was heavily involved in, as it happens).

    Separately from that, Fred Dunning’s ‘Story of the Earth’ was inspirational for NHM exhibition design in the later 1970s-80s, not for earth sciences, for which the NHM then had only a partial role (e.g. the old Minerals Gallery), but for its ‘New Exhibition Scheme’ under Roger Miles. This scheme generated the innovative ‘Hall of Human Biology’ (which again, I was heavily involved with) amongst other major exhibits.

    All of which, I admit, is not directly relevant to Steve’s original post (sorry Steve), except to say that Kuhn was an ever-present background figure in our discussions about new exhibitions at the NHM, often in a kind of ‘Kuhn v Popper’ debate.


    1. Keep ’em coming Brian. As I recall the earthquake simulation in the exhibition knocked every one’s socks off. Guess Health and Safety Executive would have had you all locked up and chucked the key in the Thames, and mothers would have fled screaming with their children!


  6. “… Keep ’em coming Brian. As I recall the earthquake simulation in the exhibition knocked every one’s socks off. …”

    Ok then, I’ll keep going, thanks Steve. I like your posts very much. I don’t often comment but I think you know that I do from time to time when I feel I’m informed enough to do so. The earthquake in the Geology Museum’s ‘Story of the Earth’ was such a hit (if you’ll excuse this kind-of-pun) that the NHM followed suit in the Earth Galleries. But the latter wasn’t without controversy. It’s based on the Kobe earthquake and was felt by some commentators to be disrespectful to the citizens of Kobe, especially those who lost lives, lost friends, relatives and property or who have suffered permanent injuries.

    Re: ‘thinking time’ and paradigms, the only solution is to retire but keep going (as you and I do), working at whatever pace suits us best, and therefore having time to read and think widely without the same deadline pressures always to write, get grants, go crazy on outreach, be directly relevant to commerce and industry, and generally jump through whatever corporate hoops managers have dreamt up, and to keep the box-ticking industry happy. A whole generation of scientists must now exist who have known no other working life – surely not conducive to break-through science. How sad is that? (See Higgs’ comments to similar effect when he got his Nobel Prize.) If the next great paradigm(s) are going to happen, my guess is that it will be in more multidisciplinary areas like the origin of life, and origin of solar systems. Actually, there has been a quiet kind of multidisciplinary revolution going on about the Cambrian Explosion but whether it’s a full-blown paradigm shifter I’m not sure. Otherwise it’s going to be out of most earth scientists’ hands and minds, as we’ll have to wait for the physicists and cosmologists to solve things like dark energy, dark matter and the quantum mechanics / gravity / relativity enigmas.
    Very best


  7. Dear Steve,

    I’ve enjoyed your commentaries and the information that you bring to those of us who read your comments.

    This particular commentary of 12/7/2015 notes that there are precious few exciting new papers being submitted.

    Perhaps I can help. I have written a book entitled “Solving the Mass Extinctions.”

    For years, scientists have had trouble explaining the causes of the major mass extinctions on Earth. I believe that there is only one cause. That cause is extensive, explosive volcanism created on the opposite side of the Earth at the antipode of a very large cosmic impact.

    There have been six acknowledged large cosmic impacts in the past 150 million years. I can show clear evidence that each impact produced contemporaneous antipodal volcanism. This evidence includes a radically new look at the Chicxulub impact and the the Deccan trap volcanism that caused the dinosaur extinction 66 MYA.

    Standard geological theory has located India in the WRONG PLACE at the time of the dinosaur extinction 66 MYA. Therefore, geologists can’t see how the Chicxulub impact could have caused the volcanism at the Deccan traps in India. The Deccan trap volcanism is now generally acknowledged as the actual cause of the dinosaur extinction. My book shows clear evidence of India’s true location 66 MYA and its path to its present location.

    This is not an exercise in pseudoscientific silliness. There are no ancient aliens or mystical power sources involved. It’s just regular old geology and physics, with a new look at the natural kinetic effects of cosmic impacts … and a fresh examination of the evidence.

    My theory creates a new lens with which to view the geological activity of the past 250 million years … and then to extrapolate farther back into the past. It creates a whole new way of looking at continent creation, tectonic plate movement and mass extinctions.

    The book can be read at I hope that you can find the time to read it and comment.


    Ben Fishler


    1. Dear Ben

      Interesting assembly of evidence and analysis in your on-line book. Did you see my item ( commenting on Renne et al’s paper on high-precision dating of the Deccan Traps (Renne, P.R. et al. 2010. State shift in Deccan volcanism at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, possibly induced by impact. Science, v. 350, p. 76-78), which offers some support for the effect of Chicxulub on magma production beneath India. I’m afraid I don’t buy your palaeogeographic reconstruction of India’s drift. The palaeomagnetic evidence for the broadly accepted view is about as strong as it gets – remember that virtually all modern ideas on reconstruction of past continental positions and, by the way, the theory of global glaciation in the late Precambrian (‘Snowball Earth’), are based on palaeomagnetic data. But is a new location for India’s wander track necessary? If massive impact-induced seismic energy passes through the Earth, chances are that it would not follow a direct path to the antipode of the impact site, because of refraction of the waves by what is becoming clear is a very heterogeneous mantle as regards its velocity structure, and more importantly by the Earth’s core. Since that heterogeneity is changing all the time, ‘retrodicting’ where such stupendous energy would be focussed is probably impossible. None the less, the influence of giant impacts on magmatism is no something that can be discounted. So, power to your pen! By the way, did you ever read about the ‘Verneshot’ hypothesis (see and That’s another issue of which most geoscientists ‘dinnae care tae speak’!

      With regards

      Steve Drury


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