Geological Mystery Explained

Henry Frankel

UMKC’s Frankel has the last word

Nothing sells like controversy. And if you are, as Henry Frankel is, poised to have the last word in the decades-long debate about how the continents and ocean floor came to be, then you are in the catbird seat.

Frankel, retired professor of philosophy in the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s College of Arts & Sciences, was drawn early in his career to the philosophy of science, particularly the evolution of scientific controversies. A favorite soon emerged: the debate among Earth scientists over continental drift; and the discovery and eventual acceptance of the concept of plate tectonics.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, UMKC, and the University of Missouri Research Board, Frankel wrote and published numerous articles on the theories and disagreements over continental drift.

At one point, he believed that he could simply cut and paste his earlier writings to produce a complete history of the resolution of one of geology’s greatest puzzles – the relative movement of landmasses and the formation of ocean basins. But some of the key Earth scientists who had been involved in the debate convinced him that he had just scratched the surface.

“I knew if I moved promptly, they could help me fill in the missing pieces,” Frankel said.

So, 30 years ago, Frankel began an enormous interviewing project by mail and telephone, and made frequent trips to the Linda Hall Library, an indispensable source of information. He also tracked down research materials in archives and organized symposia to meet the very scientists whose ideas and opinions of the drift controversy he had studied.

The advent of email and the Internet sped the process along. In late 2012, Cambridge University Press published Frankel’s four-volume masterwork, “Continental Drift Controversy:  Wegener and the Early Debate.” Frankel calls the story a romance – not in the popular novel sense, but in the way that it is full of emotion, imagination, heroism, mystery and adventure.

Frankel’s work (reviewed here) is divided into four volumes of approximately 500 pages each: Volume I: Wegener and the Early Debate; Volume II: Paleomagnetism and Confirmation of Drift; Volume III: Introduction of Seafloor Spreading; Volume IV: Evolution into Plate Tectonics.

It begins with Alfred Wegener, a German meteorologist and Arctic explorer. Wegener noticed how the continents bordering the Atlantic seemed to fit together like puzzle pieces. To validate his hunch, Wegener studied scientific papers and learned that geological structures and fossils in eastern North America, South America, Africa and Western Europe matched.

This research formed the basis of two scholarly papers he issued in 1912, and in 1915 the first edition of his Origin of Continents and Oceans was published. Although Wegener gained a loyal following, most earth scientists either rejected his ideas or ignored him altogether.

Invited to lead an expedition to the Arctic, Wegener went to Greenland in 1930 at age 50, planning to winter over on the icecap and observe Arctic weather patterns. While on this journey, Wegener lost his life. Adolph Hitler wanted to return Wegener’s body to Germany for a full hero’s funeral; but Wegener’s widow refused, saying that his body should float out to sea like a Viking warrior.

“With global warming,” said Frankel, “she may get her wish.”

Little changed until after World War II, when Cold War research yielded unexpected breakthroughs. Two new fields eventually led to the acceptance of continental drift. The first was paleomagnetism, the study of the magnetization that some rocks acquire when forming. Though paleomagnetism was then in its infancy, paleomagnetic evidence strongly supported drifting continents.

Paleomagnetic findings indicated that some continents had changed their positions more or less as Wegener and others had proposed.  Nonetheless, most Earth scientists continued to reject continental drift, arguing that the results were unreliable and labeling paleomagnetists as “paleomagicians.”

The other field that yielded new results was marine geology. In response to the fear of submarine warfare, the United States invested heavily in mapping the ocean floors.  Mid-ocean ridges were discovered in all oceans, and explaining their origin became a major problem.

Harry Hess from Princeton, unfairly described by some as an armchair scientist, used scientific findings gathered by Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Lamont Geological Observatory researchers as evidence of seafloor spreading. Hess added that his theory of seafloor spreading implied drifting continents.

In 1966, seafloor spreading was confirmed; and plate tectonics, the modern version of continental drift, was accepted soon after. According to plate tectonics, the Earth’s surface is divided into a dozen or so major plates that move relative to each other.

Frankel was drawn to the human interest stories among the scientists he studied. A prime example is the passage of Ted Irving from mediocre student to key proponent of paleomagnetism and continental drift.

At Cambridge University, Irving failed to earn top grades as an undergraduate, the kiss of death for a would-be academic. Disappointed, he went to work as a geologist for a mining company.

Another former Cambridge student, Keith Runcorn, had become assistant director of research in Cambridge’s Department of Geodesy and Geophysics in 1950. Because he had no knowledge of geology, Runcorn realized that, to satisfy his interest in paleomagnetism, he would have to find someone to gather rocks for him.

A rugby and drinking buddy of Runcorn’s, Morris Adams, suggested his old college friend, Ted Irving, as Runcorn’s research assistant. Irving’s home had no phone, so Runcorn waited through an exchange of letters to learn of Irving’s acceptance. Irving returned to Cambridge as a glorified rock collector, but Runcorn recognized Irving’s potential.

At Runcorn’s urging, Cambridge accepted Irving into the department of geodesy and geophysics, an extraordinary position for a non-geophysicist. In 1954, Irving attempted to obtain a Ph.D. for his graduate work in paleomagnetism. Unfortunately the field was so new that his doctoral examiners didn’t understand the subject well enough to recognize Irving’s research achievements. They refused to grant him the degree.

Eventually, Irving found strong support for his explanation of continental drift, and was the first paleomagnetist to come out in favor of it.  Indeed, he became the leading paleomagnetist of his generation, elected to the prestigious Royal Society of London and the National Academy of Sciences in America.

Writing the history was an up and down experience for Frankel, with bumps along the way. He chaired the UMKC philosophy department from 1999 to 2004, which cut into his research time. An illness in 2007 robbed him of most of a year.

Furthermore, he was examining a field in which he had no firsthand knowledge. But he was fully supported by the Philosophy Department and two UMKC geologists, Ray Coveney and Tina Niemi.

“I have to know whether or not a particular type of fossil was correctly identified,” Frankel said, “or whether a particular geologist was respected, but I personally can’t tell a rock from a hard place.”

Asked what he wanted people to remember about his research and writings on continental drift and plate tectonics, Frankel said he would like his account to be thought of as fair, complete and insightful.  As for students, Frankel hopes they have learned the importance of ferreting out the right answer, presenting good arguments, admitting when they don’t know the answer and generally thinking better.

With the strong endorsements of student Lindsey Schwartz and proud colleague Bruce Bubacz, also a UMKC professor of philosophy, Frankel need not worry about his reputation. Both describe him as inquisitive and curious.

“He is dogged in his pursuit of the truth,” said Bubacz.

“His students are not just so many faces to him,” said Schwartz, president of the student philosophy honor society. “He sees each of us as an individual worthy of his respect. He is interested in your interests. Having a good relationship with each of your students year after year until retirement (this is Frankel’s last semester of teaching) is something few professors are capable of doing.”

The Earth scientists’ experiences are a cautionary tale for the rest of us: even if you hold a minority view, stay with it if you believe it and ignore the ridicule, because the force of reason will prevail. It takes courage to defend your position to people with more degrees and titles after their names; but sometimes, Cinderella gets the prize.

On the subject of prizes, Frankel and his wife traveled to London on June 5 as guests of the Geological Society of London. There Frankel received the Sue Tyler Friedman Medal for “distinguished contributions to the recording of the history of geology.” Frankel is in some very fine company – many of the medals from the Geological Society of London have gone to participants in the drift controversy.  

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