You know that the earth's continents slide around on huge crustal plates, sometimes moving apart and at other times crashing into each other and raising massive mountain ranges, right? Today, this idea is almost universally accepted as a proven scientific fact, but it hasn't been for long.
It's a decidedly non-intuitive notion, and it took many years for such a radical theory to overcome the skepticism and inertial obstinacy of the scientific establishment. Does this sound familiar?
The theory of continental drift was first proposed by an American geologist named Frank Bursley Taylor, and then refined and promoted by Alfred Wegener, a German meteorologist. Wegener published his beliefs in 1912, but failed to make any headway in convincing geologists in the UK or US that he was right.
For a start, his radical notions questioned the foundations of their discipline, seldom an effective way to generate warmth in an audience. Such a challenge would have been painful enough coming from a geologist, but Wegener had no background in geology. He was a meteorologist, for goodness sake. A weatherman -- a German weatherman. These were not remediable deficiencies.
This witty observation and the one below are from Bill Bryson's wonderful new book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. He writes, "And so geologists took every pain they could think of to dismiss his evidence and belittle [Wegener's] suggestions."
Little progress was made until 1944, when English geologist Alfred Holmes published a new textbook, Principles of Physical Geology.
Holmes laid out a continental drift theory that was in its fundamentals the theory that prevails today. It was still a radical proposition for the time and widely criticized, particularly in the United States, where resistance to drift lasted longer than elsewhere. One reviewer there fretted, without any evident sense of irony, that Holmes presented his arguments so clearly and compellingly that students might actually come to believe them.
Horrors! We mustn't have students being influenced by clear and compelling arguments! Again, does this nonsense sound familiar? It reminds me of Richard Smalley's silly admonishment to Eric Drexler that his ideas about nanotechnology "have scared our children".
It has been twenty years since Drexler proposed using programmable chemistry as a precise, powerful, and economical new form of manufacturing. In that time, progress has been made in developing these theories, but unfortunately, Smalley and others also have devoted much energy to "dismiss [Drexler's] evidence and belittle his suggestions."
It took more than fifty years for the idea of continental drift (now known as plate tectonics) to gain acceptance within the scientific establishment. Will it take that long for molecular manufacturing? Let's hope not -- because someone, somewhere, will have developed the technology by then, and if we are not prepared, it could be an ugly surprise.