Animated Life: Pangea

8 minutes

(male narrator) Few in the early 20th century said, "Why are there oceans and why are there continents?" Wegener is a wonderful example of how science benefits from people coming from outside the scientific field and saying, "Well, why don't you look at it this way?" Going up into the air in a balloon for a meteorologist is like going out on the ocean for an oceanographer. He wants to take measurements of the atmosphere. He's not The Wizard of Oz, he's a scientist doing science.

(Greene) Wegener flew as often as he could. He wants to write the best book on the atmosphere's physics. No one had ever studied the atmosphere in the High Arctic before.

(Oreskes) One of the most exciting things, as a scientist, was to go on an Arctic expedition.

(Greene) It was adventure travel of a North Pole/South Pole kind. Wegener's out there in the winter night taking these huge box kites and attaching recording instruments to them, and then winching them down to get his instruments back.

(Oreskes) Nobody said that Arctic exploration was a picnic.

(Greene) Wegener had to learn how to hunt seals, how to drive a dog sled, how to travel on ice without being swept into open water, how to protect your dogs from polar bears. The travel in Greenland, his time with icebergs,

(Oreskes) the way the ice floes formed jigsaw puzzle pieces,

(Greene) the way that ice caps splits apart and fissures. All of this was part of his imagination when he made his discovery of continental drift.

(Oreskes) I wouldn't call it a discovery. He really had an idea.

(Greene) His office mate said, "Look at this beautiful atlas my parents gave me for Christmas." He wrote to his fiancé, "Did you ever notice how South America fits into Africa?" Let me pause and say, there isn't a child over age 12 who hasn't had the same thought. You can see it. What was different about what Wegener saw, there were lines on the map that represented depth under the water. And they're exactly the same shape. That means this was part of earth's structure. How did that come about? Maybe the continents drifted apart.

(Oreskes) It was radically new. Americans say the continents are fixed. Europeans think they move, but up and down. Wegener says, "You're all wrong. They move horizontally, not vertically."

(Greene) He wrote a paper in 1912. He said, "I think everybody will really be happy." Of course, everyone wasn't really happy. Everyone became very unhappy. There was a almost universal rejection of his theories to begin with.

(Greene) Here's the problem: Scientists are very suspicious of fundamental novelty.

(McCoy) He was regarded as an outsider by the geoscience community because he had no academic credentials in that field. So he was not considered qualified to make any statements in that field. What he was doing that was so different was trying to gather multiple lines of evidence. Not just geology, but vegetation and paleontology. The botanical people responded very positively because it explained the distribution of plants and animals over the world.

(Oreskes) In different places on earth you saw virtually the same fossil records. The stratigraphic columns were similar as well. Wegener's big idea was you could explain all of those things if the continents had moved.

(Greene) He wrote a book in 1915. It wasn't well received. He wrote another book in 1920. He coined the name, "Pangaea." He wrote another one in 1922. He kept fixing it and fixing it. It's one thing to think of an idea. It's another thing to work it out for 20 or 30 years.

(McCoy) That book's still available on Amazon. [chuckles]

(Oreskes) Continental drift interested him, but it was never the focus of his scientific life.

(Greene) The Arctic pulled him back in. He was really too old, almost 50.

(McCoy) He landed there with 98 tons of equipment.

(Greene) Things didn't go well.

(McCoy) Many things went wrong.

(Greene) The base did not have enough food. He said, "This is my responsibility to resupply."

(McCoy) He got several sleds together.

(Greene) It's the worst conditions you can imagine. His companions wanted to give up. At twilight, Wegener said, "Let's go for a walk." He pointed to the ice and to the sky and said, "We're trying to find out how all this works. "It doesn't matter whether we live or die. It's important that the work go on."

(Oreskes) That's why I love Alfred Wegener. 'Cause it's not really about himself. He believes in science, a kind of great, metaphorical expedition.

(Greene) At the end, they were able to supply the station. There wasn't enough food to last the winter for all. Wegener said, "I'm gonna go back to the coast." He didn't ride on the sled, he liked to ski next to he dogs. He had a heart attack and died. He's still there. The German government wanted to retrieve him for a funeral, and his wife said, "No, leave him there. He's where he wants to be."

He was wrong about the physics, and thought it happened too fast. Here's what he got right:

the continents move. [chuckles]

They really do.

(McCoy) In fact, are still moving today.

Funding to purchase and make this educational production accessible was provided by the U.S. Department of Education:

PH: 1-800-USA-LEARN (V) or WEB: www.ed.gov.


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This animated short tells the story of Alfred Wegener, a German astronomer and atmospheric scientist, who came up with the idea that continents once formed a single landmass and had drifted apart. Continental drift explained why continents' shapes fit together like pieces of a puzzle and why distant continents had the same fossils. During Wegener’s time, the idea was met with hostility but after his death a large body of evidence showed that continents do indeed move. Today the theory of plate tectonics is a fundamental principle in geology.

Media Details

Runtime: 8 minutes

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