An Inaccurate Map Leads to a True Conclusion

I just read yet another really interesting article in Old News, which my mom (who made me bookish) gets for me every year. It’s a great publication with articles about history in the form of news stories. The article is by Paul Chrastina.

Alfred Lothar Wegener was a researcher in Greenland in 1906 when he was 26 years old. “We feel like the shock troops of humanity,” he wrote in his journal, “doing battle with the deadly powers of nature! Science pitted against the icy blasts of snow. Out here, there is work worthy of a man; here life takes on meaning.”

Wegener compared his calculations of longitude against a map made in 1823 and found that the east coast of Greenland had moved almost a mile west. Then he began to do some research and found that fossils of land animals had been discovered on both sides of the Atlantic.

Up until this time, these discoveries had been explained by a theory of ‘land bridges’ that had once spanned the Atlantic and had submerged beneath the ocean, but he found this theory implausible. For one thing, there were matching layers of rock on both sides that were not found on the ocean floor in between.

To account for the data he had collected, he developed the theory of continental drift, which was hailed on both sides of the Atlantic as entirely preposterous. England’s Royal Geographic Society said no one could believe it who “valued his scientific sanity.” The American Geographic Society was more succinct, calling it “utter damned rot.”

Wegener’s theory was that all the continents had once been contiguous in a single land mass he called Pangea and had drifted apart. He couldn’t say what the force was that had separated them, but he felt it would ultimately be discovered.

To make a long story short, he published his findings during World War I, when people had a lot of other things on their mind, but long after his death, in 1960, the theory was accepted as valid and today the scientific community regards it as fact, having discovered that the earth’s crust floats on a layer of dense molten rock that is constantly in motion.

The irony here is that the 1832 map that started all this was completely inaccurate. Greenland has moved away from Europe at a rate of about one inch per year — far too slowly to be detected by any instruments available in Wegener’s day.

“Wegener had been wrong to trust the 1823 map of Greenland,” Chrastina writes. “It was inaccurate, but its false evidence led him to a true conclusion.”