The Art and Creativity in Scientific Theories

Two of the books (by Edward O. Wilson and Simon Winchester) that I am currently reading are based on two of the most robust and important scientific theories that humans have discovered to explain two different sets of natural phenomena, namely the origin of the species, and origin and movement of crustal plates. Charles Darwin conceived the idea of evolution by natural selection (along with Alfred Russell Wallace), and the theory of plate tectonics emerged in the 1970’s through the work of a number of geologists such as Harry Hess and J. Tuzo Wilson.

Each theory revolutionized the thinking and the research in the respective fields of biology and geology, and have continued to be supported by continuing research. Both ideas have a robust simplicity to explain a wide range of facts and observations. The creative process in the development of these ideas is not very much different than the creativity that we often associate with art. And finally we might add, that each new idea resulted in a paradigm shift in their respective fields of science.

I was reminded about a play that I read many years ago which was written by Jacob Bronowski entitled the Abacus and the Rose: A Dialogue on Two World Systems. The play explores the similarities between art (rose) and science (abacus) and suggests that there is a great deal of similarity between an artist’s painting (say of Rembrant), and a scientific theory (say of Rutherford), and links the two systems by claiming that the both the painting and theory reflect the creativity of the the artist and the scientist.

In a recent book From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Darwin edited by Edward O. Wilson, Wilson points out that great scientific discoveries such as evolution by natural selection (and I would add, the theory of plate tectonics), are like “sunrises” illuminating first the steeples of the unknown, and then its dark hollows. Darwin’s ideas, which first appeared in 1845 with his publication of the Voyage of the Beagle, followed by On the Origin of Species in 1859, and then completed in 1871 and 1872 by The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, respectively. You can read each of these books in Wilson’s edited compendium.

The idea of natural selection, according to Thomas Huxley, is such a simple idea, he thought himself stupid that he didn’t think of it himself. Wilson, in one of the essay’s introducing the book, writes that evolution by natural selection is perhaps the only one true law unique to biological systems. The simplicity of the idea suggests that if a population of organisms contains multiple variations in some trait (say tall versus short necks, or perhaps red versus blue eyes), and if one of these variants suceeds in contributing more offspring to the next generation than the other variants, the overall compostion of the population changes, and evolution has occurred. The power of Darwin’s theory of natural selection was that it was a phenomenon of populations, not individuals. Creation of subpopulations and the emergence of new species that descended from existing populatiions was part of his theory of evolution by natural selection.

The idea of plate tectonics, as envisioned by Harry Hess, J. Tuzo Wilson, and a few other theorists, resulted in the New Geology, which looked at the whole earth, rather than bits of rocks and minerals here and there. Alfred Wegener had suggested that the continents might have drifted to their present locations, but he did not have observations and facts to suggest how this might have happended. Like evolution by natural selection, plate tectonics emerged as a simple idea when one realized that the earth was one very gigantic system of ocean basins and continents that move, dive and collide due to radioactive decay within the earth that results in very large convection currents that push up new and drag down old parts of the crust. As in evolution by natural selection, the geological cycle of creation of new crust and the decay of old goes on endlessly.

For further reading:
From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, Edited by Edward O. Wilson, Norton, 2006

A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, Harper Collins, 2005

For further surfing:
Understanding and Teaching About Evolution by Natural Selection

The Story of Plate Tectonics

Driving along a Valley in the Middle of the North American Plate

Yesterday, my wife and I were driving north along Interstate 81, which runs along the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. The valley runs in a SSE to NNE direction, and is located about mid-way along a line running east (from Iceland) to west (to California)—roughly in the middle of the North American plate. The drive is spectacular in that along the way, whether you look left (west) or right (east), mountainous ridges dominate the landscape, along with picturesque farms, and herds of cattle, and horses. It’s breathtaking. And you have about 300 miles of this beautiful landscape to enjoy.

But the ride is also interesting in that you are in the middle of series of mountains and valleys that were formed a long time ago—long before the Rockies or the Alps. And they were caused by the collision of two plates, just like the Himalaya Mountains, which were caused by the collison of India and Asia. If you look on a map of Virginia (see below), you will find a series valleys and ridges that run parallel to each other. It looks like rocks were squeezed together to form a series of parallel mountains and valleys. The mountains that run through Virginia have maximum peaks of 4,000 – 6,000 feet today, but a long time ago, before the Pangea split, they might have been 10,000 – 14,000 feet high! And interesting to note is that the plate is drifting to the west, very slowly, or about 2.5 cm per year—or about 10 yards since Jamestown was settled in 1607!

Plate tectonics theory suggests that Virginia was in the fast lane during the Paleozoic Era—The collisions created tall mountain ranges in Virginia that were followed by erosion that etched away those mountains and piled up layers of sediments. I should also add that the same mountains and valleys that I was driving in yesterday, extend to the Southeast all the way into Alabama, and I’ve spent alot of time in the valley and ridge province in Georgia, as well as the Blue Ridge Mountains, and yes, the mountains were just as tall in Georgia in the Paleozoic as they were in Virginia.

The Earthquake of 1906 and the New Geology

I am in the mood to write about earthquakes. I’ve written about them before, and designed activities for teachers and high school students years ago. I have only experienced three earthquakes (in Columbus, Ohio (1967), San Francisco (1985) and Seattle (2001)). In the fact the last one was a very powerful quake that rocked the Pacific Northwest. I was doing a seminar with about 100 teachers, and we had to seek shelter underneath desks in the conference room. It was a riviting experience, but it was not at all close to the experience of the earthquake that occurred futher south many years earlier.

100 years ago this April 16th, one of the largest earthquakes along the edge of the North American and Pacific Plates occurred near Daly City (the epicenter of the Great San Francisco Earthquake). In a new book (A Crack in the Edge of the World) author Simon Winchester explores not only the San Francisco earthquake, but the emergence of the new geology embodied in the Theory of Plate Tectonics. Winchester opens our eyes to the significance of the earthquake in the emergence of geology in the United States, but also helps us understand the nature of the movement along the San Andreas Fault (SAF), and the unusual character of the geology in the American West. Winchester talks briefly about J. Tuzo Wilson, the Canadian geologist, who in the 1960’s was giving talks and writing papers on the new theory. I was a graduate student in the late 1960’s at Ohio State University, and Wilson was on leave visiting the geology department at OSU. I was fortunate to take one of his seminars and be introduced to this new theory. It wasn’t until 1970’s that many papers were written that led credence to support the Theory of Plate Tectonics. Winchester takes us on a riviting story about the earth’s geology and brings us back to pre-Pangea time and the identification of ancient continents including UR, Arctica, Baltica and Atlantica. This is great reading, as are Winchester’s other books (for example Krakatoa and The Map That Changed the World).

Most earthquakes occur along the edges of crustal plates, but they occur elsewhere as well. Powerful earthquakes occur in places that are far from the edges of crustal plates, such as Charleston, SC, New Madrid, MO, or New England. The quakes that occurred in these locations were high magnitude ones, and ocurred along faults that have moved in the past, and could (unpredictably) shake in the future. Winchester discusses the possibility that the North American Plate (which extends from Iceland to California), might be splitting apart and separating along a fault running North to South in the New Madrid area!

If you are teaching about earthquakes, volcanoes and plate tectonics, I do recommend Winchester’s book to you. You might also check out the USGS site on teaching about earthquakes.