Monday, January 24, 2011

The Plate Tectonics Cowboys go to Hollywood

I'm just wild about Harry..
Fig.1. Harry Hess in the role of Clarke Gable doing the derring thing in the Pacific. This was the war years. There would be another fifteen at least before Hess would write his "Essay in Geopoetry" officially underpinning convection as the modus operandum for Plate Tectonics, which he would term instead "sea-floor spreading", by which time Arthur Holmes' book, Principles of Physical Geology 332pps, published in 1944 and advocating convection for continental drift, would run to fifteen reprints. (More on H^3.)   [D.F. - For image modification, see end of post]

Those words from Jack Oliver's obituary have really got me : "All of the pieces suddenly made sense if you believed plate tectonics was going on", ..because I mean, ..why wouldn't you (believe)? Given the certitude in which Plate Tectonics is held today, what was different way back then that was holding them up? Those guys constructed the model after all. What were they alluding to then by that qualification, that today's crop of hangers-on don't know, or have forgotten, or find more convenient to forget, or have just never properly understood?

What they were alluding to was the young age of the ocean floors, and the implication that held for Earth expansion, but to properly understand how that would have appeared to those at the time we have to read between the lines of what they wrote, realising that one cannot talk about what one *doesn't* know, can only talk about what you *do* know. What *was* (becoming) known was that the ocean floors were everywhere young and dilating the crust, which carried the implication that the Earth had got bigger - doubled in size. What was *not* known (and therefore couldn't be talked about) was how this could happen.

Since you can't talk about what you don't know, this is precisely the reason why the question of expansion has been - and still is - summarily dismissed, as was Wegener's continental displacement decades before, with the mantra, "no mechanism". It was (and is) a con job pure and simple, put around by geophysicists in America to deflect attention from the 'geological how' of expansion to the 'physics why' of it, other words to deflect attention away from the geological documentation that would support the fact of Earth enlargement, towards the ambit of theoretical physics where there was nothing to talk about. It was an exercise in power, prestige, institutional kudos, and who controls the debate. And one in which geologists for some reason I frankly can't understand given the glaringly obvious geological inconsistences that have lined the road of half a century of geology like so many crucifixes, have been inexcusably compliant. On the one (geological) hand the facts of enlargement were there to be talked about, but on the other (physics) hand, nothing to say. It was a masterly dialectical stroke that supplanted an honest attempt at empirical geological reason with ignorance bred of overweening hubristic conceit and arrogance of the "what we don't know isn't knowledge" sort.

How's that for a triumph of 'science'? Everybody knew expansion was there to be talked about - but there was nothing to say. Some elephant indeed, occupying the room!

But what *was* already known, that *could* be talked about and linked to the newly emergent realisation of the young age of the ocean floors, was laid out in the last chapter of Arthur Holmes' book, Principles of Physical Geology, published in 1944 and summarising twenty years of teaching before that, which was entirely about mantle convection and continental drift. In 2000, Cherry Lewis, Holmes' biographer writes:-
"..Holmes, however, was one of a small group convinced from the start of the theory [continental drift]'s validity. His work on radioactivity, geological time, and petrogenesis had led him to a profound understanding of processes in the Earth's interior. Consequently, he was the first to propose that incredibly slow-moving convection currents in the mantle caused continental breakup, seafloor formation, crustal assimilation, and continental drifting. Despite his theories being ignored, he still taught them to his students for the next 30 years.
Hess would of course have known that Arthur Holmes was a staunch supporter of continental drift. In fact, by the time Hess published his seminal paper in 1962 , Holmes book, a standard student textbook of the day and by then running to fifteen reprints, clearly set out the means by which the continents were carried passively on convecting mantle, providing the mechanism for continental drift, exactly as it is understood today as Plate Tectonics.  Exactly in principle, that is, ..but in reality it doesn't work, for continents are deeply rooted, and no continents exist on oceanic mantle crust that could be said to be carried by convection. 

Holmes, (1944):-
p.306:- "..Currents flowing horizontally beneath the crust would inevitably carry the continents along with them.."
Preface:- "..While I have not hesitated to introduce current views, since these reveal the active growth of the subject, it should be clearly realised that topics such as the cause of mountain building, the source of volcanic activity and the possibility of continental drift remain controversial just because the guiding facts are still too few to provide a formation to more than tentative hypotheses. It is my hope that recognition of some of the outstanding problems may stimulate at least a few of my readers to cooperate in the attempt to solve them."
Hess (1962, p.607)
"..Long ago Holmes suggested convection currents in the mantle to account for deformation of the Earth's crust (Vening Meinesz, 1952; Griggs, 1939; 1954; Verhoogen, 1954; and many others). Nevertheless, mantle convection is considered a radical hypothesis not widely accepted by geologists and geophysicists. If it were accepted, a rather reasonable story could be constructed to describe the evolution of ocean basins and the waters within them. Whole realms of previously unrelated facts fall into a regular pattern, which suggests that close approach to satisfactory theory is being attained."

Carey (1988), in a retrospective is more inclusive of earlier workers exploring convection:-
"..Convection currents in the Earth were propsed in 1881 by Osmond Fisher, in 1906 by Otto Ampferer, in 1928 by Rudolph Staub in Switzerland, and in 1935 by C.L. Pekeris, later of the Weizmann Institute in Israel, and particularly by Arthur Holmes in Durham and Edinburgh, by Felix A. Vening Meinesz in the Netherlands, and David T. Griggs in Harvard as the main driving force in Geotectonics generally, and latterly in respect of Continental drift. Keith Runcorn of Newcastle adopted convection as the main cause of continental displaement, so did Harry Hess more recently.
By skirting Holmes' exposition, by referring to it as "long ago", by not including Holmes in his references, and by delegating authority on the matter of convection to the community of geologists in general, Hess appears to taint earlier views of convection with a certain irrelevance, which is reinforced by his use of the words 'nevertheless', radical', ' not widely accepted' as if, were those views to include the right ingredient which he was about to propose, convection would be respectably instated in its proper place. Convection causing the crust to ride passively on the mantle was certainly current by the time Holmes wrote his book, and if it was also radical then it would be a topic of some discussion, and widely promulgated. Or should have been. If it were not, then that, surely, was the fault of the grey polloi of geologists whom Hess would appear to vest with authority on the matter.

So was Hess, as Holmes hoped, "cooperating in attempting to solve outstanding problems"? In my view, .. possibly. Unfortunately he seems to be somewhat ungenerous in not recognising others as the foundation on which he was building. Well aware that the current views of Holmes (and others later) did refer to the crust being carried passively on the mantle, here's how, in 1962, Hess represents those earlier views of convection:-

Hess, 1962
"..The mid-ocean ridges could represent the traces of the rising limbs of convection cells, while the circum-Pacific belt of deformation and volcanism represents descending limbs. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is median because the continental areas on each side of it have rnoved away from it at the same rate-1 cm/yr. This is not exactly the same as continental drift [read Holmes' convection]. The continents do not plow through oceanic crust impelled by unknown forces; rather they ride passively on mantle material as it comes to the surface at the crest of the ridge and then moves laterally away from it.
"Ploughing through oceanic crust" was hardly a fair representation of what either Holmes was saying, or what was by then current views, which Hess was effectively restating, but would represent by the term "sea-floor spreading", ..a well worn technique of appropriation; change the language, and hope it will be seen by the less aware (who are usually the more vocal) as changing the facts.  Carey (1988, p.104) comments somewhat acidly, "Although any loose statement denigrating continental drift got easy passage to publication during that period, anyone unwise enough to speak for it was rejected by referees and editors with snide comments."

So what was unsatisfactory about convection before Hess, that was satisfactory by the time Hess came to write about it? Seems to me it was mostly because it was Hess doing the writing.  And his pals doing the reviewing.


But all of this talk of 'convection' was emerging because of what, largely, could *not* be talked about, namely expansion.

Hess, 1962, History of Ocean Basins , p.610 :-

"..Egyed (1957) introduced the concept of a great expansion in size of the Earth to account for apparent facts of continental drift. More recently Heezen (1960) tentatively advanced the same idea to explain paleomagnetic results coupled with an extension hypothesis for mid-ocean ridges. S. W. Carey (1958) developed an expansion hypothesis to account for many of the observed relationships of the Earth's topography and coupled this with an overall theory of the tectonics of the Earth's crust. Both Heezen and Carey require an expansion of the Earth since late Paleozoic time (ca. 2 x 10^8 years) such that the surface area has doubled. Both postulate that this expansion is largely confined to the ocean floor rather than to the continents. This means that the ocean basins have increased in area by more than 6 times and that the continents until the late Paleozoic occupied almost 80 per cent of the Earth's surface. With this greatly expanded ocean floor one could account for the present apparent deficiency of sediments,volcanoes, and old mid-ocean ridges upon it. While this would remove three of my most serious difficulties in dealing with the evolution of ocean basins, I hesitate to accept this easy way out. First of all, it is philosophically rather unsatisfying,in much the same way as were the older hypotheses of continental drift, in that there is no apparent mechanism within the Earth to cause a sudden (and exponential according to Carey) increase in the radius of the Earth. Second, it requires the addition of an enormous amount of water to the sea in just the right amount to maintain the axiomatic relationship between sea level-land surface and depth to the M discontinuity under continents, which is discussed later." (PETROLOGIC STUDIES: A VOLUME TO HONOR A. F. BUDDINGTON, PP.599-820 NOVEMBER1962 History of Ocean Basins, H. H. HESS, Princeton University, Princeton, N. J.)
Hesitating to accept expansion in the face of it overcoming his three most serious difficulties, does not sound like honest rational appraisal. In citing "No Mechanism" Hess was merely reiterating the objection against continental drift, and with respect to the elephant in the room (expansion) was dismissing it on grounds no more substantial than that he could not think of a reason why it should be there. His other objection, the question of water, does not seem to me to be an issue; if water is seen as part of the mantle and manufactured commensurate with mantle extrusion, then the 'plimsol line' *must* be globally invariant, except for local crustal disturbances (advance /retreat /isostatic adjustment) due to curvature correction.

Eldridge Moores casts an interesting light on Hess's 1962 paper (2003, A personal history of the ophiolite concept. Geological Soc. Amer., special paper 373, page 22.)

"Late in 1959, the Australian geologist S.W. Carrey came through to deliver a lecture on continental drift and earth expansion. His ideas on expansion have been widely discounted and detract from his contributions to continental drift, however*. Carey's contribution to the contiental drift debate was to construct a spherical table, ~2m in diameter, on which he plotted the 500 fathom contour, rather than the coastlines, as had Wegener. Carey gave a three-hour spell-binding lecture, ending completely spent, covered with sweat and chalk dust. At the end we all filed numbly out of the room. Halfway througth the talk, however, Hess bolted out of his seat and started pacing up and down the aisle. Thereafter in Advanced General Geology, there was no more talk of problems of palaleomagnetism and polar wander paths. Within two months Hess was circulating a manuscript entitled "Evolution Ocean Basins [sic], which was eventually published as "History of Ocean Basins" (Hess 1962). This was the key insightful paper that gave rise to the new unifying model of ocean floor spreading, just as Kuhn (1970)*  suggested would happen in a scientific revolution. I believe that S.W. Carey must be given the credit for "pushing Hess over the edge." In his article, Hess suggested that the oceanic crust was chiefly serpentinized mantle peridotite, that the mid-ocean ridges were the loci of upwelling and divergent motion and that the continents were passive riders on mantle material." 

[*D.F. - "However" - I know of no-one who has in fact discounted Carey's analysis other than in terms of Hess's "No Mechanism". Carey does in fact provide a mechanism in the penultimate chapter of his book Theories of the Earth and Universe, (p.325) but states, "I must of course attempt to explain the accelerating expansion I have described. However, if the explanation I offer should turn out to be invalid, that explanation should be rejected, not the reality of expansion."]

[*DF. - Moores is not representing Kuhn correctly. Kuhn suggests that insights that create the paradigm shift are made by people who are either very young or new to the field and know very little of it (often both). This hardly applies to Hess, departmental head at Princeton, who by 1962 would have been fifty six years old.]

Eldridge Moores' above comment in regard to Carey is supported by that of Richard Lee Armstrong, [ Book review, Theories of the Earth and Universe: a History of Dogma in the Earth Sciences. Warren Carey. 414 pp. Stanford University Press, 1988. $45. Geological Sciences, University of British Columbia, Cananda. It was published on the American Scientist, Volume 77, 382-384, 1989.] [See also  ]

" ..Carey and I met 30 years ago at Yale, where he taught the graduate structural geology course in a way that has never been done before or since. He was there at a critical moment in the development of tectonic ideas in North America and clearly has to be credited with planting the seeds of the plate tectonics revolution in many places as he promulgated the gospel of continental mobility and ocean expansion. He was newly arrived at the inspiration to explain everything by accelerating earth expansion, but most of his audience did not catch that particular infection. Many, including Hess and Wilson, were persuaded to give a serious look at mobility, and, as they say, the rest is history. Being a skilled orator and able to manipulate his audience like a magician did not hurt his cause.

"The ensuing three decades have flooded us with information and new interpretations of geologic processes. The plate tectonics model has undergone considerable detailed testing, modification, and embellishment. Meanwhile, Carey has gone on to champion earth expansion from ever-more philosophical and universal perspectives. But his views on earth expansion have changed little since 1959. The new dogma he espouses is largely a static one-the same arguments, the same fallacies, and the same points of debate are repeated here with little accommodation to new discoveries. Of course Carey was nearly 100% right in 1958 about what was going on in the oceans. His detailed view of sea-floor expansion in 1958 preceded and was not much improved upon by the views of Hess or Deitz in the 1966s. Carey has a right to feel slighted here. And he correctly analyzed marginal basins and arcuate orogenic belts decades before others discovered the truth and accepted credit for it. His feelings sometimes show: "The precocious visionary bears a sinister taint, and the accolades for the great advance are worn by the nouveau-wise."
" But the essential flaw in Carey’s view of the world is his firm belief that compression in mountain belts and subduction of the ocean floor are "myth" "illegitimate faith" and "spurious concept" He minces no words in his dismissal of these essential components of the plate tectonics hypothesis. His arguments are exemplary of the failures he sees in others, but not in himself-the blind eye to contradictory data, the resort to fallacious arguments, and the mustering of nonunique "explanations" of data. Students of tectonics can only stare in disbelief and amazement as he assaults the "myths." His discussion denies volumes of modern and ancient literature on mountain belt structure, decades of study by seismologists, deep seismic profiles, deep-sea drilling results, and endless lists of quantitative models of stress and strength distribution, lithosphere bending, earthquake source mechanisms, gravity field measurements, and virtually all of geochemistry and petrology.
The last paragraph of Armstrong's critique is broadbrush denigration that in my view is without foundation. Anyone who takes the trouble to read what Carey has to say cannot doubt the compass and depth of his analysis, particularly when compared to the superficial responses of his detractors. We give the last word to Carey in respect of his assessment of the catch-up Johnnies-come-lately, and reflect that surely Carey would far rather be known as the father of Earth expansion, than as the (real) father of Plate Tectonics.
"By this time (mid-1970's) the global tectonic revolution in North America had routed all opposition to the gross dispersion of continents and had reached what I had been teaching my students in the early 1950's, but I was disgusted that the "new global tectonics" had gone only halfway. It still assumed axiomatically, notwithstanding the patent rapid growth of new oceanic crust, that the size of the earth had remained essentially constant. Hence it had to go back to the mechanism I had adopted in the 1930's and 1940's of swallowing great areas of crust down the ocean trenches, but which, after 20 years of working with it, I had found by 1956 to be unworkable on a global scale. Hence my Elsevier book [1976] set out to quash this subduction myth" (S.W.C., 1989, Theories of the Earth and Universe, extract, preface, p.x; the book in question reviewed by Armstrong.)
Make of it what you like. To me, Hess's appropriation of Holmes' and Carey's work represents a changing of the guard in the Earth sciences from geology to geophysics, in which over the last five decades, far from Armstrong's representation of the plate tectonics model as having undergone  "considerable detailed testing, modification, and embellishment", we have witnessed instead ad hoc goalpost shifts designed to obscure an incredible, breathtaking, inexcusable failure to address the inconsistencies that ("..if you believe that Plate Tectonics is going on") have arisen.

There's a certain unfortunate irony in Hess being left holding this baby of what will surely turn out to be the biggest con job in the history of modern science (Plate Tectonics), because to a certain extent he was probably the fall guy for a good number of others, but it would seem he did rush in where angels feared to tread. Holmes on the other hand, in the last paragraph of his book, was extremely circumspect regarding convection, despite probably having more authority than anyone to promote it.
"..It must be clearly realised, however, that purely speculative ideas of this kind, specially invented to match the requirements can have no scientific value until they acquire support from independent evidence. The detailed complexity of convection systems, and the endless variety of their interactions and kalaeidoscopic transformations, are so incalculable that many generations of work, geological, experimental and mathematical, may well be necessary before the hypothesis can be adequately tested. Meanwhile it would be futile to indulge in the early expectation of an all-embracing theory which would satisfactorily correlate all the varied phenomena for which the earth's internal behaviour is responsible. The words of John Woodward, written in 1695 about ore deposits, are equally applicable to-day in relation to continental drift and convection currents: "Here," he declared, "is such a vast variety of phenomena and these many of them so delusive, that 'tis very hard to escape imposition and mistake." .. " [End of Book]
...against which background the following reads somewhat poignantly, which is presumably also from Cherry Lewis although appearing on an anonymous website:-
("..Holmes made another significant contribution to geology. Years before the scientific community accepted Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift, Holmes hypothesized (correctly) how it could have happened, through convection currents in earth's mantle.) Yet plate tectonics would not be widely accepted by geologists until after Holmes's death, and Holmes himself confessed in 1953, "I have never succeeded in freeing myself from a nagging prejudice against continental drift."
 "I have never succeeded in freeing myself from a nagging prejudice against continental drift." ...  Such an illuminating statement indeed from someone who had taught it all his life!  For why should Holmes, by 1953, in the best position of anyone to assess the veracity of a convective mechanism for continental drift, appear to be distancing himself from it?  Seems to me the reason is in the pages of Holmes' own book - Principles of Physical Geology, for those principles if applied correctly to the evolution of the surface of the land, particularly with reference to scale and in relation to the incision of elevated erosional surfaces from which mountains are carved, practically spell out Earth expansion.  Almost certainly Holmes did not entertain that exact intention to begin with, but writing focusses the mind powerfully well, .. and Holmes almost certainly could not ignore what would occur to any casual observer reading his book if they came at it already cognisant of the reality of expansion, ..that the many illustrations in his book are testimomy to the point of expansion. 

Was Holmes by then moving away from mantle convection towards the same path as Carey?  Given the paralllel life-times, the impingement of Carey's ideas on his own, and the very documentation of expansion that Holmes himself had set out in his book, and the inevitable realisation of what the flat tracts of eroded plateau surfaces must represent, I think it highly probable.  From a geological perspective there is no alternative. 

"...  And Harry's wild about me..."

[D.F. Image modification - 2011/01/26.  The above image of H. Hess was from the wikipedia commons and may have been removed by Google.  I am not reposting it in case there may have been an inadvertent infringement of copyright since I did merge it with that of Clark Gable (remaining), with the intention of space-saving.  The juxtaposition of the two was by way of acknowledging the apparent importance of Hollywood in the American psyche and the part that might play in the public perception in tying Hess's naval career (as captain and later admiral) with his academic career as one of the founders of Plate tectonics - since he's easily as good-looking as Clark Gable (in Mutiny on the Bounty), which in itself is surely worth a plate or two.  (Vivian Leigh by the way didn't understand swashbuckling at all, if all she complained about was bad breath.) ..  .. (Those cheroots from the Caribbean, ...  some weed...) ]
P.S.  2011/08/19  The black warning sign has just appeared (within the last couple of weeks or so), suggesting it could have been a Google take-down.  The original was up for about three days before it was taken down, since when it it has been an empty frame until replaced by the above.
P.P.S.  The swashbuckling picture of Clarke Gable was also removed from the Wikipedia about the same time.  Here we see him in a suit, just oozing swash.

Karaoke with Carmen

[ See also Expanding Earth blog at  ]


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  2. That's an excellent description of the shift to Plate Tectonics and the dismissal of the Expanding Earth. The references you managed to unearth as particularly impressive. Harry Hess has been criticised before for not giving other people credit for the convection cell model. Indeed, I'm just reading Oreskes, Rejection of Continental Drift, and she has similar thoughts. But I wonder just how easy it would be to reference all the previous papers about drift for an American scientist in the 60s. Americans had been very vocal in their opposition to continental drift for many years. Perhaps he just wrote it for his target audience. Isn't it easier to convince everyone to look at a new idea, rather than effectively telling them they had been idiots for dismissing the obvious for the last 50 years?

  3. Name of the game. Par for the course. Why would the Admirable of a Ship as big as a colliding continent want to advertise himself as a Johnny-come-lately?
    :)) (Just noticed your post.)