TACOMA – Alfred Wegener, the German scientist who imagined the early Earth as home to a single land mass and then discovered the continental drift that tore this mass apart, is portrayed in a new book—the first complete biography about this incredible man’s life and work.
Alfred Wegener: Science, Exploration, and the Theory of Continental Drift (Johns Hopkins University Press; October 2015) is written by Mott T. Greene, professor emeritus of science, technology, and society at University of Puget Sound, and affiliate professor of earth and space sciences at University of Washington.
The landmark biography of the eclectic scientist, whose theories were rejected by his peers for decades, is the result of more than 20 years of research, travel, and writing by Greene. Nature magazine, in a recent review, described the book as:
“A magnificent, definitive, and indefatigable tribute to an indefatigable man. Every geoscientist has heard of Wegener (1880–1930). Yet we have waited 85 years for a biography to explain who he was and what he achieved beyond the one thing that made him immortal.”
Greene describes Wegener as a somewhat introverted, friendly, and deeply committed scientist who “asked big questions,” such as “What are tornadoes? How do raindrops form? Why is the moon covered in craters and the Earth isn’t?”
Wegener’s curiosity took him into studies of physics, geology, geophysics, astronomy, atmospheric physics, meteorology, and glaciology—all of which, Greene says, contributed to the scientist’s formation of the idea that early Earth began with a single massive continent, known as Pangaea, and that this land mass slowly broke apart, creating the Atlantic Ocean and the continents as we know them today.
The book takes the reader along with Wegener on his early adventures: when he set the 1906 world record of continuous flight in a balloon; as a military officer during World War I; and on three grueling expeditions to Greenland, as he sought scientific data to support his work on the upper atmosphere.
Wegener endured years of skepticism and even hostility to his 1915 theory of continental drift, particularly from American scientists. Throughout his life he faced struggles, including financial difficulties, scientific isolation, illness, and injury. Working in the Arctic, he dealt with hunger, polar bears, and brutal snowstorms. Yet he loved the cruel landscape that was a major setting for his work, and when he died at age 50, felled by a heart attack on the Greenland ice sheet, his wife told the German government to leave his body there, because, “It’s where he wants to be.”
That last trip was an impossibly difficult one, and when the food ran short, his colleagues wanted to quit. But Wegener resisted. He took them out at twilight, Greene explains, and pointed to the sky and the ice, declaring that they were there to find out “how it all worked.” It did not matter if they lived or died, Wegener said. The important thing was that the research went on.
Greene’s more than two decades of work in reconstructing the man and his life was grueling in itself.
“Darwin and Einstein left thousands of letters, piles of manuscripts,” Greene says. “None of this happened for Wegener. If he was going to have a legacy, somebody was going to have to make it. And that is what I was trying to do.”
Greene read everything his subject wrote and everything he read. He poured over international archives, and traveled everywhere that Wegener had traveled and lived, including Berlin and Austria, across Germany, and to the Greenland ice cap.
In the end Wegener’s theory was found to be only partly right. Continents do not actually “drift,” scientists found in the early 1960s, but are moved by the shifting tectonic plates that make up the outermost shell of the Earth. Still the German theorist is credited as the father of one of the major scientific revolutions of the 20th century, a visionary who pushed the boundaries of scientific thought and went to great lengths to prove that he was right.
Alfred Wegener: Science, Exploration, and the Theory of Continental Drift, the book jacket says, “should be of interest not only to earth scientists, students of polar travel and exploration, and historians, but to all readers who are fascinated by the great minds of science.”
Mott T. Greene is also the author of Natural Knowledge in Preclassical Antiquity (Johns Hopkins University Press; 1992) and Geology in the Nineteenth Century: Changing Views of a Changing World (Cornell University Press; 1982). He is a member of the History of Science Society and was a 1983 MacArthur Fellow. Greene received his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, and his master’s and doctoral degrees from University of Washington.