Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences

From Heresy to Truth

James Lawrence Powell

Columbia University Press

Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences

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Pub Date: December 2014

ISBN: 9780231164481

384 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $40.00£32.95

Pub Date: December 2014

ISBN: 9780231538459

384 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $39.99£32.95

Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences

From Heresy to Truth

James Lawrence Powell

Columbia University Press

Over the course of the twentieth century, scientists came to accept four counterintuitive yet fundamental facts about the Earth: deep time, continental drift, meteorite impact, and global warming. When first suggested, each proposition violated scientific orthodoxy and was quickly denounced as scientific—and sometimes religious—heresy. Nevertheless, after decades of rejection, scientists came to accept each theory.

The stories behind these four discoveries reflect more than the fascinating push and pull of scientific work. They reveal the provocative nature of science and how it raises profound and sometimes uncomfortable truths as it advances. For example, counter to common sense, the Earth and the solar system are older than all of human existence; the interactions among the moving plates and the continents they carry account for nearly all of the Earth's surface features; and nearly every important feature of our solar system results from the chance collision of objects in space. Most surprising of all, we humans have altered the climate of an entire planet and now threaten the future of civilization. This absorbing scientific history is the only book to describe the evolution of these four ideas from heresy to truth, showing how science works in practice and how it inevitably corrects the mistakes of its practitioners. Scientists can be wrong, but they do not stay wrong. In the process, astonishing ideas are born, tested, and over time take root.
James Lawrence Powell breaks new ground. His scholarship is deep, and his stories are well-written and enriched with human detail. Anyone with an interest in how science progresses will profit from reading this book. Spencer Weart, director emeritus of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics, author of The Discovery of Global Warming
Absorbing. Publishers Weekly
This clear and well-written book offers four classic examples that show how science progresses—despite tough opposition, generally accepted ideas are often slowly replaced by newer, better ones. As an apocryphal medical school dean told incoming students: 'Half of what we will teach you in the next four years is wrong. The problem is that we don't know which half.' James Lawrence Powell's new title provides a lively look at how the sciences, in this case the geosciences, really work. Seth Stein, Northwestern University, author of Disaster Deferred: How New Science is Changing Our View of Earthquakes in the New Madrid Seismic Zone
This is first-rate story telling, with heroes, villians, and the often-unexpected discoveries that created revolutions in our concept of the planet. David Morrison, Skeptical Inquirer
List of Illustrations
Preface
Introduction
Part I. Deep Time
The Abyss of Time
A Great Mistake Has Been Made
The Bank of Time
Account Overdrawn
Strange Rays
An Hourglass of Great Precision
Geochronology
Duck Soup
Part II. Continental Drift and Plate Tectonics
An Idea to Pursue
A Very Trusting Man
Dead on Arrival
Geologists Unite Against Heresy
Continental Drift: Not Even Wrong
Postwar Surprises
Wandering Poles or Drifting Continents?
The Final Confrontation
Spreading Seafloors
HypotHESSes
The Discovery of the Century
All This Rubbish
Part III. Meteorite Impact
A Trivial Process
To Hunt a Star
The Moon's Face
Rosetta Stone
To a Rocky Moon
Worlds in Collision
Dinosaur Killer
Out with a Bang
Cosmic Pinball
Part IV. Global Warming
Origins of the CO2 Theory
Tedious Calculations of Extraordinary Interest
Destructive Criticism
A Unique Experiment of Planetary Dimensions
Giant Brains
Warming Is Unequivocal
From Heresy to Truth
Acknowledgments
Notes
Recommended Reading
Bibliography
Index

Read an excerpt from the chapter, "Deep Time":

About the Author

James Lawrence Powell serves as executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium, a partnership among government agencies and laboratories, industry, and higher education dedicated to increasing the number of American citizens with graduate degrees in the physical sciences and related engineering fields, emphasizing recruitment of a diverse applicant pool that includes women and minorities. He received his Ph.D from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has taught at Oberlin College and served as its acting president. He has also been president of Franklin and Marshall College, Reed College, the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush both appointed Powell to the National Science Board. He is also the author of The Inquisition of Climate Science.