A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 3, Chapter 12 : A New Age Dawns (The Earth Moves) | Summary



This chapter details the history behind the acceptance of the theory of plate tectonics. Early geologists posited theories such as ancient "land bridges"—one of which was thought to stretch across the Atlantic Ocean—in order to get around some of the problems suggested by the heterogeneity of Earth's surface and the appearance of ancient fossils in seemingly unconnected locations. In 1908 amateur American geologist Frank Bursley Taylor was the first to propose the collision of the continents could have caused the mountain ranges on the surface of Earth. Soon after, German theorist Alfred Wegener developed the idea the world's continents had once been a single continent called Pangaea. In 1944 Arthur Holmes—the same English geologist who helped determine the age of Earth—was the first to lay out continental drift theory. It stated currents within Earth could be powerful enough to "slide continents around on the surface."

The other large question that led to the discovery of plate tectonics was the realization all the sediments carried in Earth's rivers after storms and heavy rains needed to go somewhere. Geologists wondered why the oceans didn't fill up with these millions of tons of eroded sediment. Around 1960 Harry Hess, a Princeton University professor, came up with the ideas of seafloor spreading, or the constant formation and movement of ocean crust, and subduction, in which the crust plunged back into Earth. However, he was ignored for several years. Finally in 1963 two scientists, Drummond Matthews and Fred Vine, were able to scientifically prove the idea of seafloor spreading. At this point the theory of plate tectonics was born. It explained everything from earthquakes to the formation of island chains. Today, Bryson says, we know Earth's surface is made up of 8–12 big plates and about 20 smaller ones that continuously "move in different directions and at different speeds."


Bryson shifts from an exploration of the theories behind the vastness in the universe to an explanation of the workings of Earth. This serves to provide the reader with more easily articulated concepts than those of subatomic particle physics and provides a mental break. Bryson's technique of staggering chapters with potentially difficult concepts with relatively straightforward ones helps to explain the book's popularity. While the text as a whole is interconnected, each chapter can be read as a separate story in the history of Earth.

One of the interesting concepts Bryson touches on in Chapter 12 is the idea by the 20th century, if not before, there began to be a divide between academic and nonacademic, or corporation-based, science. He notes oil geologists could have made the realization continental plates moved long before the theory of continental drift was laid out. However, because "oil geologists didn't write academic papers," it would be much later until this theory was brought forward. This discrepancy between academic and nonacademic scientists is one that pervades all scientific fields, although Bryson reports there is a large degree of effort toward closing this divide.

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