Saturday, December 24, 2016

Coming to Understand the Earth as a Dyamic System

History of Science
Environmental and Science Education
Edward Hessler

It was Marie Tharp's painstaking work on mapping the ocean that eventually forced a reluctant scientific community to accept plate tectonics (earlier known as continental drift, an idea first proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912). She did one of the hard jobs in science:the numbing work of numbers crunching, data analysis and later transformation into a map.

All this was done back in the laboratory while the data collectors were at sea. She wasn't allowed to sail along. Navy regulations, you know.

Tharp mapped the 10000 mile-long-Mid-Atlantic ridge and the "boy" (Bruce Heezen) in the saga reduced it to "girl talk."  Eventually, he came round, persuaded by evidence, way too much evidence.

Marie and Bruce [Flickr]
The Royal Institution of Great Britain has produced a very nice short animated film of her work.  The Smithsonian Magazine published a great story about Tharp's work earlier this year which includes the map that she and her colleague, and more than sometime detractor, Bruce Heezen, produced. Heezen was stuck in a paradigm, saying that the map produced looked too much like continental drift.

Clare Dudman wrote a compelling page turner, a faithfully told story of the life of Alfred Wegener. It is told in Wegener's voice. Victorian prim and proper. It is a historical novel but please don't let the word novel turn you away from it. It sticks close to the science. Historical novels can be an interesting way to write about the history of science, providing readers a trustworthy account of how science was conducted during the time the scientist was working as well as how difficult, even when faced with data, it is to change one's view.

Science tends to be, with good reason, conservative when it comes to change. It takes a lot of evidence and Planck's principle. A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

In 1930 Wegener disappeared beneath the Greenland ice. He was found, perfectly preserved, about six-months later.

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