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The Plate Tectonic Revolution

Bernard Coakley

Upheaval from the Abyss: Ocean Floor Mapping and the Earth Science Revolution. David M. Lawrence. xviii + 284 pp. Rutgers University Press, 2002. $28.

Plate Tectonics: An Insider's History of the Modern Theory of the Earth. Naomi Oreskes, editor (with Homer Le Grand). xxiv + 424 pp. Westview Press, 2001. $35.

Scientific histories come in two types—popularized versions, which typically describe the struggles of great figures against the ambient ignorance of their time, and academic accounts, which read like the commentaries on biblical texts. The two books discussed in this review steer different courses between these two extremes, with differing degrees of success.

Upheaval from the Abyss is an account of the plate tectonic revolution from the time of its genesis in the continental drift controversy. The subtitle, Ocean Floor Mapping and the Earth Science Revolution, is a bit misleading--this account covers the contributions of a variety of data sets and disciplines, not just sea floor mapping.

A map of the worldÆs ocean floor . . .Click to Enlarge Image

In this book, David M. Lawrence, a journalist with a master's degree in geography hwo spent some time as a research assistant at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has slightly modified the first draft of history. His objective recreating "what it is like to be on or under the ocean surface, combating cantankerous equipment or furious weather in the hope of extracting a few precious observations from the deep" is admirable, but this account, which is somewhat romanticized, does not deliver the goods.

The trouble begins in the first few chapters. After briefly ruminating on the vagaries of research, Lawrence segues to the tragic death high on the Greenland ice sheet of Alfred Wegener, the foremost early proponent of continental drift. Then follows a 12-page history of geological thought (all the way from the book of Genesis through the principles outlined in the 17th century by Nicolaus Steno), which sets the stage for Wegener's aggressively cross-disciplinary study. The next few chapters focus on the life of Wegener and his trials and tribulations at the hands of academic geologists, nearly all of whom rejected his theory.

It is clear now, after the great rush of ocean exploration that followed World War II, that Wegener was right. It is also clear that many of the objections ot continental drift that were raised at first were not answerable with the knowledge at hand. Wegener admitted this himself. Although his opponents did not always behave well, Wegener was granted a full hearing in his lifetime. His book was published and revised in subsequent editions. Whatever his opponents thought of continental drift, they had symposia to discuss it. These gatherings may have been populated by the academic equivalent of a lynch mob, but Wegener's ideas were heard and embraced by a few, the vanguard of the plate tectonic revolution.

After the early chapters, the text settles down to the steady rhythm of competent prose. With the possible exception of the section on Marie Tharp, whose contribution should be better known, little of the material is new.

Upheaval from the Abyss has no footnotes. As a result, it is not always possible to connect the text to its sources. The summary "Notes on Reporting" for each chapter cite interviews as well as primary and secondary sources, indicating the likely origin of some of the information. The selected bibliography of about 150 items includes some books that are not mentioned in the text or the notes.

This is a serviceable book covering the genesis of plate tectonics in a summary fashion. You could do worse as an introduction to this fascinating history.

Plate Tectonics offers a striking contrast to Upheaval from the Abyss. It covers many of the same events, but from the vantage points of 17 research scientists who participated in them. The editor of their essays, Naomi Oreskes, contributes a preface and a lead chapter that illuminates the thinking of Wegener's opponents and presents some of the early scientific results that undermined the prevailing contraction theory and underpinned the plate tectonic revolution. In this clearly written, well-documented chapter, she sets the stage without judging the actors by the standards of recent achievements.

The remainder of the book is divided into five sections—"The Early Work: From Paleomagnetism to Sea Floor Spreading," "Heat Flow and Seismology," "The Plate Model," "From the Oceans to the Continents" and "Continents Really Do Move"—which trace the development and application of the results of the plate tectonic revolution. Oreskes gives a brief introduction to each section but stays out of the way of the authors.

The contributors, an excellent group, had a hand in many of the primary programs and papers that advanced the plate tectonic revolution. Almost every one of them modestly attributes his or her success, at least in part, to good fortune, to having been in a place and time in which it was possible to help foster the revolution. Liberal, block-grant–style funding from the U.S. Office of Naval Research supported the deployment of new instruments in unexplored areas, illuminating the earth in unexpected ways. Although these scientists were fortunate to have the opportunity to work with new, relatively comprehensive data sets, chance favored the prepared. Reading about the path each took, and the opportunities lost and found en route, is one of the greatest pleasures in these essays.

I recommend this book. Letting these earth scientists, most of whom have continued to make substantial scientific contributions even after the revolution, speak directly of their experiences was a canny choice. Free from the filters that authors apply to interviews to refine their narrative, these scientists reveal not only what they did and why, but how their actions connected to activity elsewhere. It is as much like sitting down and hearing the stories straight from their mouths as one could hope.—Bernard Coakley, Geology, Tulane University, New Orleans

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