Tragically I gave up on the Plate Tectonics study before answering my most important question: “Is Alfred Wegener the Balto of plate tectonics?”

Let me back up.


Balto is a famous sled dog. He got a statue in NYC for leading a team of dogs through a blizzard to deliver antibody serum to Nome, Alaska in 1925, ending a diphtheria outbreak. Later Disney made a movie about how great he was.

Except that run was a relay, and Balto only got famous because he did the last leg, which had the most press coverage but was also the easiest. The real hero was Togo, the dog who led the team through the hardest terrain and covered by far the most miles as well. Disney later made a movie about him that makes no mention of Balto for the first 90%, and then goes out of its way to talk about what a shit dog he was, that’s why he didn’t get included in any of the important teams, but Togo had had to do so many hard things they needed a backup team for the trivial last leg so Balto would have to do.

Togo’s owner died mad about the US mainland believing Balto was a hero. But since all the breeders knew who did the hard part Togo enjoyed a post-Nome level of reproductive success that Ghengis Khan could only dream about, so I feel like he was happy with his choices.

plus he did eventually get some statues

But it’s not like Togo did this alone either. He led one team in a relay, and there were 20 humans and 150 dogs that contributed to the overall run. Plus someone had to invent the serum, manufacture it, and get it to the start of the dog relay at Nenana, Alaska. So exactly how much credit should Togo get here?

The part with Wegener

I was pretty sure Alfred Wegener, popularly credited as the discoverer/inventor of continental drift and mentioned more prominently than any other scientist in discussions of plate tectonics, is a Balto.

First of all, continental drift is not plate tectonics. Continental drift is an idea that maybe some stuff happened one time. Plate tectonics is a paradigm with a mechanism that makes predictions and explains a lot of data no one knew was related until that moment.

Second, Wegener didn’t discover any of the evidence he cited, he wasn’t the first to have the idea, and it’s not even clear he did much of the synthesis of the evidence. His original paper refers to “Concerning South America and Africa, biologists and geologists are in close agreement that a Brazilian–African continent existed in the Mesozoic”

So he didn’t invent the idea, gather the data, or even really synthesize the evidence. His guess at the mechanism was wrong. But despite spending hours digging into the specific discovers and synthesizers that contributed to plate tectonics, the only name I remember is Wegener’s. Classic Balto.

On the other hand, some of the people who gathered the data used to discover plate tectonics were motivated by the concept of continental drift, and by Wegener specifically. That seems like it should count for something. My collaborator Jasen Murray thinks it counts for a lot

Jasen would go so far as to argue that shining a beacon in unknown territory that inspires explorers to look for treasure in the right place makes you the Togo, racing through fractured ice rapids social ridicule and self-doubt to do the real work of getting an idea considered at all. Showing up at the finish line to formalize a theory after there’s enough work to know it’s true is Balto work to him. This makes me profoundly uncomfortable because strongly advocating for something unproven terrifies me, but as counterargument arguments go that’s pretty weak.

One difficulty is it’s hard to distinguish “ahead of their time beacon shining” from “lucky idiot”, and even Jasen admits he doesn’t know enough to claim Wegener in particular is a Togo. But doing work that is harder to credit because it’s less legible is also very Togo-like behavior, so this proves nothing about the category. 

So I guess one of my new research questions is “how important are popularizers?” and I hate it.

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This makes me profoundly uncomfortable because strongly advocating for something unproven terrifies me, but as counterargument arguments go that’s pretty weak.

My experience working in a lab is that "taking a position" is very important for overcoming akrasia and coordinating research effort. We use extremizing statements all the time when discussing our research - "we know," "this is suss," "that data's bullshit," "we don't know jack shit unless we can get an accurate measurement here," "I don't buy it at all," "don't worry about it, we can engineer a solution," and above all, "we'll burn that bridge when we come to it" and "time to fuck around and find out."

It's not that we're incapable of calibrated forecasts about which scientific facts are true or false. It's that it's just not actually the truthfinding bottleneck. Instead, our bottleneck is picking what evidence to gather next, and doing the scientific labor. The scientific truth will take care of itself if we can get that right, and if not, all bets are off.

Wegener, as a practicing scientist among colleagues, probably dealt with this. "Come ON, just look at how these continents fit together. They must have drifted somehow. Let's figure out how and gather good evidence. PROVE ME WRONG." That sort of attitude among scientists and engineers in a research lab is familiar to me. From the outside, it would look like wild overconfidence, unless and until proven correct. But it serves an important social coordination function, and I think it's recognized by other scientists as serving that purpose.

It would be nice to get more explicit signposts for speech for social coordination vs. speech for pure epistemics, but in practice you just have to pick these things up from context. I think this distinction is key in interpreting the history of science.


Taking a position like this is very useful. And it doesn't even need to be a position you actually believe in. To some extent you are playing a character in order to make a point. Working out the right question to ask is 90% of the battle, and if someone says "here's a big exciting theory, is it right?" suddenly that gives you a great question to work with.

Tragically I gave up on the Plate Tectonics study before answering my most important question: “Is Alfred Wegener the Balto of plate tectonics?”

Let me back up.

Tangential to the main point, but I love your opening.

This is a great parable. I'm often mildly reluctant to talk about some of my pre-formal ideas in case it gets finished up proper by others and I counterfactually lose social credit. I usually do it anyway, especially for stuff I don't plan on "finishing up". But I can see how this reluctance is like heavy molasses poured all over a research community, and it makes us much less effective.

In my experience, the "finishing stage" of making an idea precise enough to be presented is not where the germs of generality are--the parts of ideas that can be used to build other ideas with in a compounding fashion.[1] If I'm just researching or working on something in order to build up a repertoire of tools in order to personally use them for other problems, then I don't need to go through the expensive "finishing" stage of making the infrastructure for all the middle steps legible to others.

There's an essay by fields medalist William Thurston[2] with several related points, but it's worth reading in its entirety.

“First I will discuss briefly the theory of foliations, which was my first subject, starting when I was a graduate student. (It doesn’t matter here whether you know what foliations are.)

At that time, foliations had become a big center of attention among geometric topologists, dynamical systems people, and differential geometers. I fairly rapidly proved some dramatic theorems. I proved a classification theorem for foliations, giving a necessary and sufficient condition for a manifold to admit a foliation. I proved a number of other significant theorems. I wrote respectable papers and published at least the most important theorems. It was hard to find the time to write to keep up with what I could prove, and I built up a backlog.

An interesting phenomenon occurred. Within a couple of years, a dramatic evacuation of the field started to take place. I heard from a number of mathematicians that they were giving or receiving advice not to go into foliations—they were saying that Thurston was cleaning it out. People told me (not as a complaint, but as a compliment) that I was killing the field. Graduate students stopped studying foliations, and fairly soon, I turned to other interests as well.

... When I started working on foliations, I had the conception that what people wanted was to know the answers. I thought that what they sought was a collection of powerful proven theorems that might be applied to answer further mathematical questions. But that’s only one part of the story. More than the knowledge, people want personal understanding. And in our credit-driven system, they also want and need theorem-credits.

... I’ll skip ahead a few years, to the subject that Jaffe and Quinn alluded to, when I began studying 3-dimensional manifolds and their relationship to hyperbolic geometry.

... In reaction to my experience with foliations and in response to social pressures, I concentrated most of my attention on developing and presenting the infrastructure in what I wrote and in what I talked to people about

... There has been and there continues to be a great deal of thriving mathematical activity. By concentrating on building the infrastructure and explaining and publishing definitions and ways of thinking but being slow in stating or in publishing proofs of all the “theorems” I knew how to prove, I left room for many other people to pick up credit. There has been room for people to discover and publish other proofs of the geometrization theorem.

In this episode (which still continues) I think I have managed to avoid the two worst possible outcomes: either for me not to let on that I discovered what I discovered and proved what I proved, keeping it to myself (perhaps with the hope of proving the Poincare conjecture), or for me to present an unassailable and hard-to-learn theory with no practitioners to keep it alive and to make it grow.

(...) I think that what I have done has not maximized my “credits”. I have been in a position not to feel a strong need to compete for more credits. Indeed, I began to feel strong challenges from other things besides proving new theorems. I do think that my actions have done well in stimulating mathematics.”

Thurston was a Togo.

  1. ^

    “The art of doing mathematics consists in finding that special case which contains all the germs of generality.”

  2. ^

    And in the spirit of this post, I should HT Chris Olah for linking to this essay. It's important to maintain a culture for remembering what hat-tips are due.

+1 for learning that Wegner was not the originator of plate tectonnics. I too had heard the same story you did in high school and never learned anything more.