Alfred Wegener: The Man Behind the Theory
How many people know the man behind the name? Lots of people have heard of Wegener and know why he is famous, yet few know about him as a person and the conditions in which he grew up as well as the life expereinces that have influenced him. The man is just as important as his contributions.
Alfred Lothar Wegener was born on November 1, 1880 in Berlin to Richard and Anna Wegener. Wegener was the youngest of five; two of his siblings died at early ages. His close brother, Kurt, was a natural scientist, and his sister, Tony, was a painter. His father, like all of his ancestors in past generations, was a theologist who was also in charge of Schlinder Orphan's Home. His family tree goes back to Luther's time, and the few who were not theologists had jobs as merchants or teachers. There are two other smaller claims to fame within the family. Gabriel Wilhelm Wegener, Alfred's great-grandfather's brother, was famous by his association to Alexander von Humboldt (a naturalist and traveller). The other is Paul Wegener, Alfred's cousin, who was an actor in Berlin.
They lived in March of Brandenburge and in some villages in Silesia. The family passed their summer vacations at Anna's house in the small village of Zechlinerhutte, which provided the perfect environment of lakes and forests for Alfred and Kurt to study and learn. The house became a memorial center for the brothers in 1969 until ownership problems led to its relocation in 1995 to a former schoolhouse under the management of Neuruppin Folk Museum.
Alfred received a PhD in astronomy from the University of Berlin in 1904 and a doctorate in planetary astronomy in 1905. In 1906 he participated in an expedition to Greenland to study polar air circulation. That same year,he and Kurt won a balloon contest that set a world record because the balloon flew for 52 hours nonstop. When he came back, he was a tutor in meteorology at the University of Marburg. In 1912, Wegener married Else Koppen, the daughter of Germany's leading meteorologist. He was drafted to the German army in 1914, but after being wounded, he spent the rest of the war in the Army weather forecasting service. In 1924, Wegener went to Austria to teach at the University of Graz, where he held the only and uniquely designed position in meteorology and geophysics. Wegener died in 1930, only a day or two after his fiftieth birthday, when he froze to death on a return from bringing supplies to researchers at a station in Greenland.
Wegener is most famous for his theory of continental drift, the idea that the continents were once connected in a supercontinent called pangaea, which gradually spread apart to create the separated continents that we have today. He used several pieces of evidence to support his claim: the edges of the continents seem to "fit" into one another like jigsaw pieces, fossils of the same organisms on different continents as well as similar paleoclimatic evidence. Continental drift has become almost synonymous with plate tectonics because it can explain many of the Earth processes. Wegener's theory was not accepted during his lifetime because he was seen as an outsider and he relied on the idea that the continents plowed through the oceans. He was a novel thinker for his time because he saw the interconnectedness between discplines in the Earth sciences.
Wegener also contributed to research on meteorites and lunar craters. He performed experiments supporting the fact that lunar craters originate due to impact, and can occur at the same time as secondary melting. He came to this conclusion based on his knowledge of physics. It is is considered espeically important for theories related to scale models in geophysics.
He wrote The Origin of Continents and Oceans.
Here is a stamp dedicated to Wegener and his theory of continental drift.
One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead
Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine
Research. March 10, 2004. Alfred Wegener and his parental home.
Czegka, W. July 1996. The contributions of Alfred Wegener to meteoritics and early impact research. Meteoritics & Planetary Science 31:33-34. Accessed March 10, 2004
Drake, E.T. and P.D. Komar. July 1984. Origin of impact craters; ideas and experiments of Hooke, Gilbert, and Wegener. Geology Boulder 12:408-411. Accessed March 9, 2004.
Greene, M.T. 1998. Alfred Wegener and the origin of lunar craters. Earth Sciences History 17:111-138.
Hughes, P. Jan/Feb 1998. The meteorologist who started a revolution. Weatherwise 51: 38-42. Accessed March 8, 2004.
NASA. March 22, 2003. On the move: continental drift and plate
PBS. 1998 WGBH. A Science odyssey: people and discoveries: Alfred
Strange Science: The Rocky Road to Modern Paleontology
and Biology. January 1, 2004. Alfred Wegener.
University of California, Berkeley: Museum of Paleontology. "date
USGS. May 5, 1999. Alfred Lothar Wegener: moving continents.
Author: Diana Obst
Creation/revision date: April 19, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Earlham College. Revised April 19, 2004 . Send corrections or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org