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Duration:04:55
Uploaded:2012-04-03
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 Prolog (0:00)



Hank Green: Don't you just love it when you're right?

 Intro (0:01)



[intro music]

Of course you do. And so do scientists, though the scientific method makes us have to pretend, like, we aren't. The fact is, the whole of scientific history is filled with people who were totally right and everybody thought they were wrong, and today I wanna tell you about one of those people. He changed the way that we look at the Earth.

 Main Part (0:25)



Alfred Wegener was born in 1880 in Germany. He was one of those rare people that's just good at and interested in a lot of different things. He got his degree in astronomy but went into the relatively young field of meteorology, where he pioneered the use of balloons to track air currents and went on expeditions to Greenland to study polar weather, at which he was totally badass. He spent winters in a hut drilling ice cores, and he also made the longest crossing of Greenland's ice cap on foot. For the win.

But he was also interested in other stuff, including geophysics, which is why he got totally obsessed with this. He couldn't help but notice, like some schoolchildren will, that Africa and South America almost look like puzzle pieces. Sure, they're thousands of miles apart, but they really look like they fit together. Of course, other people picked up on this -- like I said, you probably did around 4th grade -- but another one of Wegener's great qualities is that he wasn't afraid to ask the stupid-sounding questions, so he just started asking people, "Continents moving. Is that a thing? And if it was a thing, how would we know that it was a thing?"

And because he was a voraciously curious guy, he was looking for the answers to those questions in all kinds of places, and guess what? He found out that fossils of the same plant species had been found on both sides of the Atlantic, he discovered that the geology of the Appalachians was almost identical to that of the Scottish highlands, and he learned that distinctive rock strata found in South Africa were the same as in parts of Brazil, almost as if the continents, I don't know, drifted.

Finally, in 1914, while laid up in a military hospital bed during World War 1, he pieced together his theory: that all of the land masses on Earth used to be part of a single continent called the Urkontinent, or the Origin of All Continents, and over time the masses moved, scattering fossils and rock patterns around the world.

The next year, he published his research in a book, The Origin of Continents and Oceans, and the scientific community responded. [laugh track] Aw. They totally freaked out on him. Geologists dismissed him as a glorified weatherman -- they held entire conferences devoted to debunking his book. Even his father-in-law, who was the most prestigious meteorologist in Germany, told him he should have probably stuck to the balloon thing.

The conventional wisdom of the time was that continents used to be connected by land bridges that later collapsed or were covered by the oceans, and that's how they explained stuff like matching plant fossils.

Of course, Wegener didn't do himself a lot of favors by being actually pretty wrong about a lot of stuff. Like, he could not explain, he had no idea how the continents actually drifted. He thought they were just plowing through the Earth's crust like an icebreaker. He also suggested that the centrifugal force of the Earth's rotation was causing the continents to drift, which is just totally kinda crazy. Yeah.

So, the damage had been done and everybody in Germany thought he was total crazy person. No one would hire him to teach anywhere; the only job he could get was as a meteorology professor in Austria, and that is where he was in 1930, where he decided he wanted to go back to Greenland to set up some weather stations. And during a weeks-long excursion to bring supplies to one of these remote stations, Alfred Wegener disappeared in a blizzard. His body was found the following spring, and it is still there today, buried in the ice.

I know, right? Because he was right! I mean, not about everything, but about a lot of stuff! And at the time of his death, people were just starting to understand what the floor of the ocean actually looked like, and decades later that research showed that there were giant rifts and mountain ranges under the oceans, and those were the boundaries where continental plates were pulling away from each other or crashing against each other. It wasn't until the 1960s that plate tectonics became something widely accepted by the scientific community.

Though he wasn't vindicated during his lifetime, he is now respected as one of the greatest scientists of his era, and you can pay your respects to him through one of the many things in science that are now named after him, including the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research or the Wegener Peninsula of Greenland, where he died, or craters on both the moon and Mars.

So, thanks, Herr Doktor Wegener.

 Outro (4:24)



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[outro music]