A scholarly, somber debut about the life of the scientist who theorized continental drift.
Tackling the fascinating but ultimately sad times of real-life German meteorologist Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), the Welsh-born author blends impressive research with a dignified prose style that effectively evokes the turn of the 20th century. It’s a work with small appeal for casual readers but one that will fascinate anyone with an interest in how science is done. It should also absorb anyone of a certain age whose attention ever wandered from the subject at hand to the world map on the wall of an elementary classroom to note the tantalizing parallels at the edges of the new and old worlds. Today’s plate-tectonic savvy fourth-graders would be astonished to know that the supercontinent Pangaea was an idea rejected for decades after its early-20th-century postulation. Dudman follows Wegener from his rather sad Berlin childhood through an education that steered him to the new science of meteorology and his seminal explorations of Greenland, and on to the academic battles that littered his career as a scholar. The Greenland trips, daunting, life-threatening, taken on before the invention of Thinsulate, Gore-Tex, Ski-Doos, or any of the comforts that make it possible these days for amateurs to tackle the Yukon, are heavy going but critical in Dudman’s reconstruction of Wegener’s intellectual progression to his great theory. Patient readers will be rewarded as observations of weather and navigation connect step by step with fossil records and ice shifts until the movement of continents becomes understandable—and the resistance of Wegener’s contemporaries to his explanations becomes maddening. There is some leavening in the reconstruction of Wegener’s happy involvement with a pioneer meteorologist whose admiring young daughter becomes his capable and doting wife, but the science is always foremost. Amazingly, Wegener’s theory got lost on the shelves for decades after his death.
Not an easy read, but substantial and rewarding.