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Friday, July 22, 2022

How sloppy can science reporting be? Einstein never ridiculed Wegener's theory of continental drift


Alfred Wegener (1880–1930) -- one of the great minds of the 20th century, the developer of the "Continental Drift" theory that he formulated for the first time in 1912. It was a milestone in understanding how the Earth system works. Nothing of what we know of the great holobiont that's the world's ecosystem would make sense without the movement of the continents that causes a continuous exchange of matter from the mantle to the crust, and back. 

Reading about science can be a confusing experience, where you wade among facts and factoids, and you try to make sense of what you read. Recently, I was dismayed to read that, apparently, "Einstein ridiculed Wegener's theory of Continental Drift" (the one now called "plate tectonics."). 

It was one of those flashing sentences that appear and disappear on social media. I can't find it anymore, but it puzzled me enough that I went to check the Web. And, yes, there is this story that Einstein had criticized, even ridiculed, Wegener for his theory. 

Alfred Wegener and Albert Einstein were two great scientists, both idols of my youth. It would be surprising if Einstein engaged in the kind of feeding frenzy that run-of-the-mill scientists engage in when they group together to defame someone smarter than they are. But it is true that Wegener's ideas went through a barrage of rabid criticism, not unlike the kind that hit the "Limits to Growth" 1972 study. Plenty of this criticism of his theory was politically motivated. Wegener was German and, after WWI, everything German became unpopular in the English-speaking world. A curse that lasted well until the 1960s, when the idea of "Continental Drift" was reconsidered and widely accepted under the name of "Plate Tectonics."

So, did Einstein really fall for the general denigration of Alfred Wegener and his ideas? But what is this idea based on? Let's explore the web a little. In a recent article in "Discovery Magazine," we read that "As late as 1958, a book rejecting continental drift included a foreword by Albert Einstein." But no reference is given, nor what Einstein actually said.

More work with the search engines, and we can find, on a site called "human-stupidity.com,"  a post where a reference is given. The link goes to a post in German from "Der Spiegel" where they say that "Selbst 43 Jahre sp├Ąter unterst├╝tzte Albert Einstein Wegeners Kritiker noch mit einem Buchvorwort" and even with my very limited German, I can understand that they don't say anything more than that Einstein wrote a preface of a book that supported Wegener's critics. But even here, no link, no reference.

Back to the search engines and, finally, the mystery is solved. I found (I didn't know) that Einstein gave some important contributions to geodynamics during his career. The story is told in detail in this article by Frias et al., where we can read how Einstein befriended a Geologist named Charles Hapgood, of whom he wrote in 1954 that: 

I frequently receive communications from people who wish to consult me concerning their unpublished ideas. It goes without saying that these ideas are very seldom possessed of scientific validity. The very first communication, however, that I received from Mr. Hapgood electrified me. His idea is original, of great simplicity, and—if it continues to prove itself—of great importance to everything that is related to the history of the earth’s surface. (Einstein, 18th of May 1954, courtesy of the Einstein Archives Online).

And here is the book cover: 

This book can still be found for sale, but it has become a collector's item, and it is atrociously expensive. From the snippets available on the Web, it is clear that Hapgood criticized Wegner, but his ideas were not so different. He did accept that the continents move, but he proposed a different mechanism for their movement. His idea was that continental plates were pushed by a mechanism related to the centrifugal effects of the growth of ice.

And how about Einstein? Nowhere in Albert Einstein's preface we can read a criticism of Wegener's ideas, a point clearly made by Frias et al. in their article

And there we are: Einstein remains a hero of mine. He correctly interpreted the way science should be done. Hapgood's work was serious science and it deserved to be taken into consideration. That's what Einstein said. 

In any case, the carelessness of people who write about science is bewildering. They simply rewrite what they read without worrying too much about verifying what they are writing. A similar story is that of the "horse manure catastrophe" where people still keep citing a sentence that was never written. And when you hear people still saying that "The Club of Rome made wrong predictions"............... So it goes.  


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