“The Rational Optimist”–Intro

An interesting looking piece of flint jutted unnaturally from a hard clay bank a little off the highway near Barstow, California.  Its sharp edge sliced me as I carelessly dug around it.  A young UCLA professor later confirmed that I’d discovered a crude, human-fashioned cutting tool.  I’m probably the first person to hold it since it fell from the hand of its maker over 10,000 years ago.  I’m certainly the most recent victim of its long-idle but still-keen cutting edge.

Punctuated but relentless, the accelerating rate of human progress is cause for optimism

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Big Science From a Little Tent in a Snowstorm

Wegener (left) and companion in Greenland on November 1, 1930.  They look cold here, but a couple of weeks later, both were frozen solid.

Waiting out a winter storm in a small tent on Greenland’s icepack, German meteorologist, Alfred Wegener was bored.  With only his diary and a world map to help pass the time, he pondered the apparent puzzle-like fit between the continents of South America and Africa.  Though not the first to notice this curiosity, Wegener became the first to seriously study it.  For years he compared the geology and the fossil record in the corresponding areas of the two continents.  He published papers on his findings before World War I, and in 1915, a book, “The Origin of the Continents and Oceans”.  Wegener proposed that all the continents had once been joined to form a single super-continent that he named Pangaea (all earth).  He advanced a theory that the present continents had broken apart and, through a poorly explained ‘continental displacement mechanism’, slowly moved to their current positions.

The big-name geologists in their universities predictably ridiculed the presumptuous German ‘weatherman’.  Nobody else paid much notice.  Wegener’s theory sank into decades of obscurity.

A century later, Continental Drift, plate tectonics (Wegener’s poorly explained continental propulsion system) and a proto-continent called Pangaea are taught to every budding geologist.  Wegener is a scientific hero.  He’s my hero.  He receives credit for a colossal, apparently obvious, but brain-bending insight; a reality staring the world in the face for centuries.  For this I create the “Wegener Prize” to be awarded to other seers in future posts.  What else is staring us in the face?  Maybe I’ll pitch a tent…

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