Reading the Rocks

Every so often, a new idea comes along in science that completely changes the way that people think about the world around them. These ideas are so radical that they are known as "scientific revolutions." For astronomers, one such revolution took place in the year 1543. Before this time, most people believed that Earth was the center of the universe and the Sun, stars, and planets all moved around us. Then an astronomer named Nicolaus Copernicus published a book suggesting that the Sun and stars stayed still and it was Earth that moved. It took over 100 years for this "Copernican revolution" to take hold. This idea completely changed the way that people viewed the solar system and our planet's place in it.

For biologists, a great revolution took place in 1859 when Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. In this book, Darwin presented his ideas about how different animals and plants evolved from other animals and plants. This "evolution revolution" gave biologists a whole new way of looking at living things and how they relate to each other.

For geologists, one of the most important scientific revolutions happened back in the mid-1960s. Unlike the work of Copernicus and Darwin, few people outside of the scientific community even noticed it happening. This revolution was the theory of plate tectonics. Plate tectonics describes how the outer surface of the Earth is made up of a number of large chunks called "plates." Because of forces inside the planet, these plates are in constant motion. As they move, they continuously change the size and the shape of the oceans and continents.

These days, plate tectonic theory is accepted by almost all geologists and is taught to science students from elementary school right up through college. In the early part of the twentieth century, however, the idea that Earth's crust could move was thought to be impossible. Those scientists who dared to suggest such an idea were attacked by other scientists who did not believe in these radical new ideas. Amazingly, in just a few short years, this revolutionary theory changed the way that scientists looked at our planet. It also provided the answers to many of the nagging questions that had haunted geologists for hundreds of years.

Unlike some other scientific revolutions, the theory of plate tectonics was not proposed by a single person—instead, it was the result of many different scientists all assembling different pieces to help solve a great puzzle. The development of plate tectonic theory is an excellent example of the scientific method in action, and its story reads more like a detective novel than a history book. To really appreciate just how revolutionary the theory of plate tectonics is, we must first take a step back in time and see how the science of geology got its start.

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