[ESSAY] The crazy history of 3 ridiculous geological theories

Science is constantly reinventing itself, revising past theories and proposing new ideas that hopefully further our understanding of the world.  Copernicus proposed the heliocentric solar system, Newton had gravity, and Einstein gave us relativity.  But every once in a while, a theory gets proposed that’s downright nutty.  Not only that, some of these theories can persist for decades or even centuries.  As these ridiculous theories hang around, sometimes they find themselves intersecting with strange moments in history.  Here, I present the crazy history you’ve never heard of behind 3 ridiculous geological theories.


The Geological Theory:
Fossils grew within the ground

The History:
This theory can be traced all the way back to Aristotle, who noticed that certain shell-like rocks looked a lot like shells.  Shockingly, he didn’t put one and one together.  To explain the rocks that looked like shells, Aristotle proposed that there were two vapors within the Earth: a watery one that condensed to form metals, and a fiery one that condensed to form fossils.  Believe it or not, this theory persisted into the 1600s.

Where it gets crazy:
Nearly every scientist who was on the verge of overthrowing this theory either died suddenly, or abandoned his work.  In the mid 1500s, a Swiss scientist named Conrad Gesner began to collect as many fossils as he could.  He built a remarkable collection over the course of 30 years, taking time to carefully illustrate each of the hundreds of fossils.  In 1565, he published this work, basically condensing the entire field of botany and zoology into a 4 volume masterpiece in 130 different languages.  Because geology wasn’t exactly a high paying profession, Gesner also studied as a physician to earn a living.  Shortly after publishing his masterpiece, Gesner treated a patient, caught plague and died.

Nearly 100 years later, an English scientist named Robert Hooke began a study of petrified plants.  He looked at multiple samples of fossilized wood under a microscope and noticed that it looked really similar to living wood gathered from the surrounding trees.  This led Hooke to believe that these fossils were the remnants of once living things, a revolutionary idea in 1665.  That same year, Hooke published his work.  But another well-known scientist of the day hated Hooke, and saw to it to promote Hooke’s main rival, banishing Hooke’s work to relative obscurity.  Hooke abandoned his work on fossils in favor of astronomy and architecture.  And that well-known scientist who hated Robert Hooke?  It was a guy by the name of Isaac Newton.

Around the same time Newton was sabotaging Robert Hooke’s work, a Danish scientist named Nicolas Steno was dissecting a shark’s head… because apparently that was a thing people did for kicks in 1667.  Steno noticed that a bunch of tooth-shaped fossils looked a lot like the shark’s teeth he was dissecting.  He also noticed that the fossils showed clear signs of decay and wear, seemingly indicating that these fossils could not have formed within the ground, but had to have existed above ground in order for them to wear down.  Steno also proposed that the layers of rock he found the fossils in represented different layers of time, further indicating that the worn and decayed fossil shark teeth had to have been deposited a long time ago.  Steno’s work, had he continued it, would have altered the course of history and given us a profound understanding of fossils and extinct life.  Right after he published this work, Steno converted from Protestantism to Catholicism and abandoned his scientific work altogether to become a priest.


The Geological Theory:
All rocks on Earth were laid down in water

The History:
In the late 1700s, a German geologist named Abraham Gottlob Werner was studying layers of rock.  He noticed that many of the rocks he studied were made of sand.  Sand, clearly found in oceans and lakes, must have been laid down in the presence of water that was no longer there.  As a result, Werner proposed that the entire Earth was once covered in water.  As the sand settled out of the water, the oceans receded and disappeared to leave the sedimentary rocks he thought covered the entire Earth.  This theory became known as the Neptunist theory, after the Roman god of the sea.

Where it gets crazy:
In 1750, an Italian geologist named Anton Lazzaro Moro was studying the volcanic islands of Italy.  Having never traveled beyond this region, Moro figured that all of the rocks on Earth looked like this, and clearly came from volcanoes.  As a result, Moro proposed that all rocks on Earth were born from fire.  This theory became known as Vulcanism, after the Roman god of fire. A nasty battle erupted between the Neptunists and the Vulcanists.  Eventually, this battle found its way into one of the most famous theatrical plays of all time.

The battle to explain the origin of the world’s rocks was fought between the Neptunists and the Vulcanists for nearly a century, like the most epic game of paper-scissors-stone ever played.  The more geologists explored, the more sedimentary rocks they discovered.  Therefore, most geologists began to favor the Neptunist point of view.  But the Vulcanists stood strong, steadfastly believing that the majority of Earth’s rocks came from volcanoes.

The battle took perhaps its strangest turn in 1831.  A German playwright and amateur scientist known as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (yes, that Goethe) took the side of the Neptunists. In 1831, he finished writing his play, Faust.  In the fourth act of his now famous work, Goethe featured a dialog between a Neptunist and a Vulcanist.  Not surprisingly, the protagonist adopted the role of the Neptunist.  In a particularly mean-spirited ploy, the role of the Vulcanist was played by Mephistopheles… the devil.

In a wonderful follow up irony, had Goethe been able to travel to the bottom of the ocean, he might have noticed that all of the rocks beneath the oceans are volcanic, meaning that the majority of rocks on Earth are indeed born of fire.


The Geological Theory:
The Moon was formed after a Mars sized planet collided with Earth

The History:
Only 100 years ago, the prevailing theory on the formation of the Moon was proposed by none other than Charles Darwin’s son, George Darwin.  His theory stated that the molten surface of Earth was flung into space due to centrifugal forces.  Once flung into space, the molten rock solidified into the moon.  As crazy as this sounds, 50 years later, a Canadian geologist named Reginald Daly proposed that a massive impact sent tons of dust and debris into space that then condensed and formed the moon.

Where it gets crazy:
This is actually the best theory we currently have for the formation of the Moon.  Rocks collected during the Apollo Moon landings are chemically similar to rocks found on Earth, suggesting that Moon rocks were once on the Earth.  However, the Moon has a lower density than the Earth.  But this actually supports the giant impact hypothesis.  As the Earth began to cool down billions of years ago, the heavier elements, like iron, sank to the center of the earth while the lighter elements stayed on the surface.  When the mystery planet collided with Earth, these lighter elements scattered into the cosmos, leaving the heavy iron core within the Earth.

On a bigger scale, the consistency between the Earth’s spin and the Moon’s orbit also favors the giant impact hypothesis.  If molten rock had been thrown into orbit by a fast-spinning Earth, then we’d have to be able to explain why the Earth suddenly slowed down.  If the Moon was captured – meaning that the Moon had just been drifting through the solar system until it got close enough for Earth’s gravity to grab it – then we might not expect the Moon’s orbit to match up with Earth’s rotation.  This gets into physics and angular momentum that’s a bit out of my reach, but this is the best theory we have: a Mars-sized planet collided with the Earth around four-and-a-half-billion years ago, sent millions of tons of dust and debris into the cosmos that slowly collected and condensed, forming a ball of rock that now orbits our planet and controls our tides.  That’s f*cking ridiculous.

by Miles Traer

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