Have you ever shared an idea with an audience who received your idea with laughter and scorn? This happened to professor Alfred Wegener who on this day, 110 years ago, presented his controversial theory of continental drift during a lecture at the Senckenberg-Museum in Frankfurt.
Wegener was the first to coin the term ‘continental drift’ to describe the phenomenon that the continents once formed a single landmass called the Pangaea, but broke into continents and drifted apart to their present locations.
The idea that the continents must once have formed one giant landmass was not entirely new. There were others before Wegener who had noticed that especially the coast lines of Africa and South America fitted like a hand in a glove. One of them was the French geographer Antonio Snider-Pellegrini, who in his book ‘La Création et ses mystères dévoilés’ included a before- and after drawing of the continents. But no-one had been able to come up with a solid scientific explanation as to why the continents had drifted apart.
During this specific lecture for the German Royal Geographical Society Wegener attributed the drifting continents to a centrifugal force which was caused by the earth’s rotation. He later published his theory in his work ‘Die Verschiebung der Kontinente.’
Although Wegener’s theory on continental drift still had some gaps and flaws he believed that there was enough evidence to allow further research and discussion. Unfortunately for Wegener, the scientific world disagreed. In those days it was a firmly held belief that the continents were very immobile features of our planet. Fellow scientists therefor called Wegener’s theory “delirious ravings” and dismissed it as symptoms of “moving crust disease and wandering pole plague.”
During another meeting of the German Royal Geographical Society Wegener’s theory was publicly ridiculed and someone in the audience thanked the speaker for having blown Wegener’s theory to bits and continued to thank “Professor Wegener for offering himself for the explosion.”
New ideas have a tendency not to fit in boxes. They often are cross-overs of many disciplines and branches of industry, which was also the case with the groundbreaking theory of continental drift. Wegener wasn’t a geographer but a meteorologist. How could a meteorologist say something about geography? His radical ideas threatened the authority of the geographical experts and questioned what the scientist at that time perceived as a given. This fear was voiced by the geologist R. Thomas Chamberlain, who said: “If we are to believe in Wegener’s hypothesis, we must forget everything which has been learned in the past 70 years and start all over again.”
But Wegener was unmoved by all the criticism. So far he had been on three Arctic expeditions and was a record-setting balloonist. His scientific mentor and future father-in-law advised him to be cautious in his theorizing. But Wegener replied, “Why should we hesitate to toss the old views overboard?” He saw criticism as an opportunity to refine his ideas, so when critics accused him of not presenting a plausible mechanism for the continental drift and pointed out his mistakes, he provided six more theories, including one about plate tectonics.
Even though Wegener was rather sportive and relentless in proving his theory, he wasn’t able to get the geographical scientific community to embrace his ideas. His biggest problem was not his lack of evidence, but that he was an outsider. Some decades earlier Darwin did an excellent job in creating support for his highly controversial theory on evolution. Before he even published his book ‘On the Origin of Species,’ he became a renowned expert in his field, made influential friends who were prepared to defend his theories and sought out his adversaries for advise.
Wegener would probably have had more support for his ideas if he had taken a leaf out of Darwin’s book. So, if you find yourself in a similar situation, and want to introduce your idea or innovation but find yourself in unfamiliar territory, it might be a good idea to work on your network and your credibility first.
But then again, you might want to learn form Wegener too. He was unmoved by all the criticism, and plodded on nonetheless. He might have been ridiculed in the past but today he is recognized as the scientist who gave us the theory of continental drift.
Want to know more about how to successfully launch your idea or innovation and learn how to deal with the critics?
In our book ‘Nay-Sayers: How to innovate and deal with resistance against new ideas’ we use examples like Alfred Wegener’s theory on continental drift to identify the reasons for resistance and to create an effective strategy to deal with objections and doubt.
You can order ‘Nay-Sayers’ in paperback or Kindle format at Amazon.
Image: First known illustration of the drifting continents by Antonio Snider-Pellegrini, 1858