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Observations placeholder

Herschel, Sir John - Explains plate tectonics in 1836



Type of Spiritual Experience


The following observation is taken from a letter written by Sir John Herschel to Charles Lyall. It was wriiten at the Cape of Good Hope on February 20th 1836.

Plate tectonics is a scientific theory that describes the large-scale motions of Earth's lithosphere.  It is generally accepted that it is a very recent idea. In this observation I will show that it is not.

But the purpose of adding this observation is not to denigrate the scientist who eventually had the idea accepted, - in 1912 the meteorologist Alfred Wegener clearly described what he called continental drift, and expanded the description in his 1915 book The Origin of Continents and Ocean. The aim is to show that even if one man has his moment of inspiration or wisdom it often falls to other men to take up the baton.

In effect, every idea has its time, that occasionally an idea can bounce from scientist to scientist or person to person for hundreds of years until its moment comes.

It is also clear that the person who eventually proposes the idea may not always be aware where the idea came from – occasionally the sources of inspiration sit waiting for a person with the right character to promote them and get them accepted. Wegener, for example, was the right man, his clear explanation and ability to withstand the early ridicule started the debate that would end up fifty years later in the theory of plate tectonics. In other words, what had been proposed by Herschel was only accepted by the geoscientific community in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It took nearly 150 years before the idea was accepted.

Dragging those on the bottom rung up a few levels can be a very tiring business, it needs stamina and good health, and wisdom is not often given to those with stamina, much wisdom appears to be given to the very ill.  So the promoters of inspiration and wisdom are often not the receivers of it - but both types of people are needed and those who gave to humanity may never live to see what they were given become widely accepted.

A description of the experience

Feldhausen, Cape of Good Hope, February 20th 1836.

My dear sir,

I am perfectly ashamed not to have long since acknowledged your present of the new edition of your Geology, a work which I now read for the third time and every time with increased interest.....

[here we have the proof that Herschel had a prompt to make him contemplate the problem of why there are volcanoes and mountains and give it some thought]........

Now for a bit of theory.  Has it ever occurred to you to speculate on the probable effect of the transfer of pressure from one part of the earth's surface by the degradation of existing and the formation of new continents - on the fluid or semi fluid matter beneath the earth's crust?

Supposing the whole to float on a sea of lava, the effect would merely be an almost infinitely minute flexure of the strata; but, supposing the layer next below the crust to be partly solid and partly fluid, and composd of a mixture of fixed rock, liquid lava and other masses, in various degrees of viscidity and mobility, great inequalities may subsist in the distribution of pressure and the consequence may be local disruptions of the crust, where weakest and escape to the surface of lava etc.

[he then goes on to expand on the explanation but also questions Lyall and Poulett Scrope's theories saying they are 'wanting in explicitness' and 'not going high enough in the inquiry up to its true beginning' - cause effect chains ]

...this gives  a wrong notion of the process itself.  The question stares us in the face - how come the gases to be so condensed?  Why did they submit to be urged into liquefaction?  If they were not originally elastic but have become so by subterranean heat, whence came the heat? and why did it come?  How came the pressure to be removed or what caused the crack? etc etc.....

[he then goes on to describe plates riding up one on the other].

......now let the process of deposition go on until by accumulation of pressure on the bottom or sloping sides or on some protuberance from the bottom, some support gives way - a piece of the solid crust breaks down and is plunged into the liquid below and a crack takes place extending upwards.  Into this the liquid will rise by simple hydrostatic pressure.  But as it gains height, it is less pressed and if it can attain such a height that the ignited water can become steam, the joint specific gravity of the column is suddenly diminshed and up comes a jet of steam mixed with lava till so much has escaped that the deposited matter takes a fresh bearing, when the evacuation ceases and the crack becomes sealed up



The source of the experience

Herschel, Sir John

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