Monday, November 9, 2009

Continental Drift and the Ocean Floors

The photographs of the whole Earth taken during the first manned flight to the moon had a stunning impact on our perception of the Earth. Those images gave us us a new perspective of our planet and its place in space. Humans had seen the moon, sun, and stars as mysterious presences from the dawn of our consciousness. Our imaginations had endowed these celestial objects with the powers of gods and mythologies were grounded by these existential archetypes. Being able to look back at our own planet had a similar effect, as theories like the Gaia principle sprung from people's awe of this new vision. Wall posters had been published in the late 1960's and I got one in 1969 that still has an enduring fascination for me.

"Continents in Motion", a book published in 1974 by Walter Sullivan, came to my attention around that time and offered a detailed account of the establishment of the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift. The scientific investigation into the formation of the planet's ocean floors had only recently provided conclusive evidence that the grand continents of the Earth had been slowing crawling across the face of the planet for thousands of millions of years. Thus, these images of the Earth provided an image that encapsulated the reality that we are living on a planet that is an evolving, living thing. Wow. And so it remains.

National Geographic has given us many inspiring images and their series of ocean floor maps are among their best. Here is the Atlantic Ocean floor showing Africa and South America fitting together like puzzle pieces. (As Alfred Wegener had proposed in 1915.) Click to enlarge - it's beautiful.

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