Some great ideas shake up the world. For centuries, the outermost layer of Earth was thought to be static, rigid, locked in place. But the theory of plate tectonics has rocked this picture of the planet to its core. Plate tectonics reveals how Earth’s surface is constantly in motion, and how its features — volcanoes, earthquakes, ocean basins and mountains — are intrinsically linked to its hot interior. The planet’s familiar landscapes, we now know, are products of an eons-long cycle in which the planet constantly remakes itself.
When plate tectonics emerged in the 1960s it became a unifying theory, “the first global theory ever to be generally accepted in the entire history of earth science,” writes Harvard University science historian Naomi Oreskes, in the introduction to Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth . In 1969, geophysicist J. Tuzo Wilson compared the impact of this intellectual revolution in earth science to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which had produced a similar upending of thought about the nature of the universe.
This article is an excerpt from a series celebrating some of the biggest advances in science over the last century. For an expanded version of the story of plate tectonics, visit Century of Science: Shaking up Earth .
Plate tectonics describes how Earth’s entire, 100-kilometer-thick outermost layer, called the lithosphere, is broken into a jigsaw puzzle of plates — slabs of rock bearing both continents and seafloor — that slide atop a hot, slowly swirling inner […]