Critical Essay: Alfred Wegener’s Missing Puzzle Piece by Elizabeth Martin

Critical Essay: Alfred Wegener’s Missing Puzzle Piece by Elizabeth Martin

The following is a short story submitted to Homewood High School’s literary and creative magazine The Menagerie.

Alfred Wegener’s Missing Puzzle Piece by Elizabeth Martin

About a month ago as of writing this, my science class discussed a theorem called ‘Continental Drift’. It isn’t a theorem anymore though, now that it’s been proven true. The reason why we we’re discussing continental drift was because it was a part of our unit on boundaries. Not boundaries you set with your ex, but boundaries between tectonic plates. There are many kinds but they get categorized into 3 domains: Transform, Divergent, and Convergent. Convergent boundaries smush together to create towering mountains, destructive volcanoes (if one of the boundaries is oceanic), and subduction zones. Divergent boundaries move away from each other and create deep rift valleys and chaotic mid-oceanic ridges. Finally, transform boundaries move past each other, but beside each other instead of head on. This can cause earthquakes, faults, ridges, deep trenches – if they’re underwater – and even small ponds. 

The reason why this is relevant is because back in the late 1800s, scientists were doing what they do best: overthink everything. And back then, their obsession was with geography – specifically the continents. Where did they come from? Where did they go? And this was a century before Cotton-Eye Joe so there is no use in making that statement…yet. But by far the biggest mystery regarding the land we stand on were these strange anomalies. Fossils found in Africa were also found in South America, both fossils lined up perfectly, yet no real correlation. And then, fossils of the Glossopteris plant were found in both Australia, Africa, South America, and even Antarctica. This strange fossil phenomena was the 1890s version of Stranger Things. 

For years – decades even – no solution emerged from the murky waters of endless study. Until, Wegener appeared. Alfred Lothar Wegener was the name. And this was not his first rodeo. He was a geologist, climatologist, geophysicist, the list goes on. But Alfred made the connection that any kindergartner nowadays could – the shape of the continents fit together. Maybe not perfectly, mainly due to ever-changing shorelines, but it was a 1:1 fit either way. And as further evidence, on the shorelines where fossils were found, those two locations fit almost eerily well. The conclusion was there, all Wegener had to do was show the world what he had discovered… except it wasn’t that easy. Because there was a question that Wegener wasn’t prepared for: “How did the continents move?”

See, a main issue with his theory? He couldn’t prove it. That’s like, a good 90% of why theorems exist. Now, there are mathematical theorems that haven’t been proven yet – some even garner a million dollar check if you prove them right or wrong – but this wasn’t a mathematical theorem that’s over a century old. No, this was a theorem that needed proving. Of course, we all know that answer here. The theorem was proven, but how? Thing is, it technically wasn’t… during Wegener’s lifetime. After all, tectonic plates weren’t known to exist back then. Wegener was basically screaming into the wind at that point. But here’s the thing – that didn’t mean he didn’t try. He had all the puzzle pieces, but he was only missing one. A single piece was hidden from view, and that’s all the public needed to know. Whether or not he had other achievements didn’t matter, the general public of scientists? Did. Not. Care. 

Wegener died in 1930, with a theorem written off as nothing. It was only when Marie Tharp entered the scene that a conclusion came. Long story very short, she was able to find rift valleys and mid ocean ridges which implies that each continent was on a tectonic plate – and that these plates move. Granted, these plates only move about 4 inches a year, but it was huge progress. Why? Because it proved Wegener’s theory correct. The continents move because the tectonic plates that they sit on move. And at one point in time, presumably more than 175 million years ago, a supercontinent called Pangea existed. Pangea was where these continents were not only connected, but that’s how the fossils – like the Glossopteris – were seemingly put in random places on random continents. Well, random no more, obviously. 

But back to Wegener for a second. After we finished that unit in my class, I still thought about him. Mainly because of that problem he faced. Due to a lack of progressive technology in the industry of science, a theorem – that is now considered a cornerstone of Earth and Space Science classes all over the world – was written off as the words of the insane. That irks me in a way that I didn’t think possible. But it also reminded me of something important; the public will always pick apart your arguments, your character, your flaws, everything, and exaggerate them into caricatures of themselves. It’s disturbing, horrifying, devastating to think about how many people have been twisted into these caricatures because they lose themselves in what the public thinks of them. And it’s just as interesting to think about why.

People like to assume that the public will assume the best, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. From bullies in elementary schools, to paparazzi disregarding human decency all for the media they serve, publicity has rarely ever been positive. But this awful circumstance can be solved. Why? Because this line up of behavior is taught. Just as easily teachable as racism, sexism, or homophobia. We assume the worst in people, and sometimes that can be justified due to past experiences. But only assuming the worst is not only one of the worst kinds of bias, but can lead to other unhealthy ways of thinking.

Wegener is not only a hero in the science world, but is a tale of tragedy. Even if he had the evidence, and knew about plate tectonics, technology wasn’t advanced enough to back him up. He was betrayed twice. Once by the lack of human advancement and again by the lack of technological advancement. And just for the record, when I looked up when continental drift theory was confirmed, a (a reputable source of scientific information in Earth and Space Science) credited everything as evidence for continental drift – except plate tectonics.

There is a good takeaway from this though. It simply goes to show that unless you have every possible resource, people will always assume the worst…However. That doesn’t mean that all our efforts will be for nothing in the end. Even the smallest effort will go credited in the end, if not in your lifetime, then in someone else’s. So if people assume the worst in you without checking to see if you have all the necessary tools to be better, then that isn’t rational. That doesn’t mean you can’t improve on your own terms, but if you truly are limited like Wegener was, there is not a single person to blame but the surroundings. Blame the game, not the player. 

History doesn’t repeat, but human behavior does. And that also means that we get another chance to see what we missed the first time. And oftentimes, it’s the repeat that exposes the inner gems of the geode, the diamonds in the rough, the tectonic plate below the continent.