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When Continental Drift Was Considered Pseudoscience
In a courtroom in Italy, six seismologists and a civil servant are facing charges of manslaughter after failing to predict a 2009 earthquake that killed 308 people in the Apennine Mountain city of L'Aquila. The charge is remarkable partly because it assumes that scientists can now see not merely beneath the surface of the earth, but also into the future. What's even more extraordinary, though, is that the prosecutors based their case on a scientific insight that was, not long ago, the object of open ridicule.
It was a century ago this spring that a little-known German meteorologist named Alfred Wegener proposed that the continents had once been massed together in a single supercontinent and then gradually drifted apart. He was, of course, right. Continental drift and the more recent science of plate tectonics are now the bedrock of modern geology, helping to answer vital questions like where to find precious oil and mineral deposits, and how to keep San Francisco upright. But in Wegener's day, geological thinking stood firmly on a solid earth where continents and oceans were permanent features.
We like to imagine that knowledge advances fact upon dispassionate fact to reveal precise and irrefutable truths. But there is hardly a better example of just how messy and emotional science can be than Wegener's discovery of the vast, turbulent forces moving within the earth's crust. As often happens when confronted with difficult new ideas, the establishment joined ranks and tore holes in his theories, mocked his evidence and maligned his character. It might have been the end of a lesser man, but as with the vicious battles over topics ranging from Darwinian evolution to climate change, the conflict ultimately worked to the benefit of scientific truth.
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