BOOK: Alfred Wegener: Science, Exploration, and the Theory of Continental Drift

Readers here have surely heard of Alfred Wegener. If so, what they know of him is probably limited to “oh, he was the geologist who came up with continental draft, which later turned into plate tectonics,” and perhaps, “people didn’t accept his theory at the time, but we now know he was right.” A new biography aims to show that Alfred Wegener – not a geologist, in fact – was so much more than the originator of the theory of continental drift. Historian of science Mott Greene’s 600 page treatment of Wegener’s life, scientific work, and legacy has been a long project, and the result is a handsome and rich work that has its own book trailer:


Mott T. Greene, Alfred Wegener: Science, Exploration, and the Theory of Continental Drift (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 696 pp.

Publisher’s description Alfred Wegener aimed to create a revolution in science which would rank with those of Nicolaus Copernicus and Charles Darwin. After completing his doctoral studies in astronomy at the University of Berlin, Wegener found himself drawn not to observatory science but to rugged fieldwork, which allowed him to cross into a variety of disciplines. The author of the theory of continental drift—the direct ancestor of the modern theory of plate tectonics and one of the key scientific concepts of the past century—Wegener also made major contributions to geology, geophysics, astronomy, geodesy, atmospheric physics, meteorology, and glaciology. Remarkably, he completed this pathbreaking work while grappling variously with financial difficulty, war, economic depression, scientific isolation, illness, and injury. He ultimately died of overexertion on a journey to probe the Greenland icecap and calculate its rate of drift. This landmark biography—the only complete account of the scientist’s fascinating life and work—is the culmination of more than twenty years of intensive research. In Alfred Wegener, Mott T. Greene places Wegener’s upbringing and theoretical advances in earth science in the context of his brilliantly eclectic career, bringing Wegener to life by analyzing his published scientific work, delving into all of his surviving letters and journals, and tracing both his passionate commitment to science and his thrilling experiences as a polar explorer, a military officer during World War I, and a world-record–setting balloonist. In the course of writing this book, Greene traveled to every place that Alfred Wegener lived and worked—to Berlin, rural Brandenburg, Marburg, Hamburg, and Heidelberg in Germany; to Innsbruck and Graz in Austria; and onto the Greenland icecap. He also pored over archives in Copenhagen, Munich, Marburg, Graz, and Bremerhaven, where the majority of Wegener’s surviving papers are found. Written with great immediacy and descriptive power, Alfred Wegener is a powerful portrait of the scientist who pioneered the modern concept of unified Earth science. The book should be of interest not only to earth scientists, students of polar travel and exploration, and historians but to all readers who are fascinated by the great minds of science.


VIDEO: Janet Browne on Becoming Darwin: History, Memory, and Biography (3 lectures)

Janet Browne spoke on Darwin for three lectures at Harvard earlier in November, all of which have been uploaded to YouTube. Enjoy!

Becoming Darwin: History, Memory, and Biography, “Economist of Nature”

Becoming Darwin: History, Memory, and Biography, “Stories of a Scientific Life”

Becoming Darwin: History, Memory, and Biography, “Icon”

BOOK: On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson

I really enjoyed reading this new biography of Rachel Carson earlier this year. Souder touches on Carson’s evolutionary themes in some of her writing, as well as describing her work on an article in 1956, “Help Your Child to Wonder,” which later became the book, The Sense of Wonder which can be seen as a decades-prior-to-Last Child in the Woods effort to reconnect children to nature. I highly recommend Souder’s biography to anyone interested in nature and the environment, the history of science, or a well-told story about a significant figure of the twentieth century.

William Souder, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 2012), 512 pp.

She loved the ocean and wrote three books about its mysteries, including the international bestseller The Sea Around Us. But it was with her fourth book, Silent Spring, that this unassuming biologist transformed our relationship with the natural world.

Rachel Carson began work on Silent Spring in the late 1950s, when a dizzying array of synthetic pesticides had come into use. Leading this chemical onslaught was the insecticide DDT, whose inventor had won a Nobel Prize for its discovery. Effective against crop pests as well as insects that transmitted human diseases such as typhus and malaria, DDT had at first appeared safe. But as its use expanded, alarming reports surfaced of collateral damage to fish, birds, and other wildlife. Silent Spring was a chilling indictment of DDT and its effects, which were lasting, widespread, and lethal.

Published in 1962, Silent Spring shocked the public and forced the government to take action-despite a withering attack on Carson from the chemicals industry. The book awakened the world to the heedless contamination of the environment and eventually led to the establishment of the EPA and to the banning of DDT and a host of related pesticides. By drawing frightening parallels between dangerous chemicals and the then-pervasive fallout from nuclear testing, Carson opened a fault line between the gentle ideal of conservation and the more urgent new concept of environmentalism.

Elegantly written and meticulously researched, On a Farther Shore reveals a shy yet passionate woman more at home in the natural world than in the literary one that embraced her. William Souder also writes sensitively of Carson’s romantic friendship with Dorothy Freeman, and of her death from cancer in 1964. This extraordinary new biography captures the essence of one of the great reformers of the twentieth century.

Two articles about Darwin, evolution, and books by Bernard Lightman

In Notes & Records of the Royal Society:

The many lives of Charles Darwin: early biographies and the definitive evolutionist

Bernard Lightman

Abstract This article focuses on the early book-length biographies of Darwin published from his death in 1882 up to 1900. By making 1900 the cutoff point I can examine the biographies produced when the iconic figure was not yet set in stone, and before the rediscovery of Mendel’s work in the early twentieth century and the anniversary celebrations of 1909 changed the way in which Darwin was regarded. Darwin’s biographers dealt with three major themes. First, several biographers emphasized his scientific abilities, in particular his powers of observation and his prowess in conducting experiments. Second, many biographers discussed his character, a key issue in determining whether or not he could be trusted as a scientific guide. Finally, his scientific theories and religious beliefs, and how they related to the evolutionary controversy, formed a topic taken up by most biographers. By focusing on these three themes, the biographies published before 1900 were important in shaping the image of Darwin that was forming in American and British culture.

In Science & Education:

Evolution for Young Victorians

Bernard Lightman

Abstract Evolution was a difficult topic to tackle when writing books for the young in the wake of the controversies over Darwin’s Origin of Species. Authors who wrote about evolution for the young experimented with different ways of making the complex concepts of evolutionary theory accessible and less controversial. Many authors depicted presented evolution in a non-Darwinian form amenable to religious interpretation.

A.R. Wallace, RIP +97


Copyright Michael D. Barton. With permission of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London. Thanks to George Beccaloni and Judith Magee for the opportunity to see the Wallace Collection. Do not reproduce this image.

Alfred Russel Wallace died 97 years ago today. George Beccaloni reminds us, and offers for remembrance access to an early biography of Wallace, A Great Hertfordian, here.

Chicago Darwin conference videos…

… have been made available here. The following are history and philosophy-specific, video links at the aforementioned link.

Ronald Numbers (University of Wisconsin): Anti-Evolutionism in America: Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design

Pietro Corsi (Oxford): Is History Useful to Darwin Studies? Reflections at the End of a Year of Celebrations

Janet Browne (Harvard): Looking at Darwin: Making a Celebrity through Portaits and Images

Robert J. Richards (University of Chicago): Darwin’s Biology of Intelligent Design

John Hedley Brooke (Oxford): ‘God knows what the public will think’: Darwin and the Religious Response to the Origin of Species

Daniel Dennett (Tufts University): Darwin’s ‘Strange Inversion of Reasoning’: Confronting the Counterintuitive

Philip Kitcher (Columbia University): The Importance of Darwin for Philosophy

Elliott Sober (University of Wisconsin): Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards?

Lynn Nyhart (University of Wisconsin): Geographic Isolation from Wagner to Mayr

Richard Burkhardt (University of Illinois): Animal Behavior in Evolutionary Perspective: Two Centuries of Inquiry

Jane Maienschein (Arizona State University): Embryos and Evolution: A History of Courting and Separation

Michael Ruse (Florida State University): Is Darwinism Past Its ‘Sell-by’ Date? The Challenge of Evo-Devo