Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences

Four RevolutionsJames Lawrence Powell

This very engaging book is more than a history of its four central earth science subjects. At its core is an examination of the ways that science works. Not just the scientific method, although that’s certainly everywhere in the book, but also the scientists themselves, with their all too human brilliances and weaknesses, insights and blind spots, on display for all to see.

It’s this trip through the practice, even the art, of science that makes Four Revolutions so readable. Scientists make many mistakes — moreso in their assumptions than in their experiments — but without those mistakes there would be nothing upon which their successors could build. At its best, science is a very human process, and this book shows us how impossible scientific progress would be without all of our very human triumphs and failures.

During the twentieth century, scientists made four fundamental and surprising discoveries about the Earth: our planet is billions of years old, continents and ocean floors move, rocks as big as mountains fall from the sky, and humans are changing the climate. When first proposed, each violated long-held beliefs and quickly came to be regarded as scientific, and sometimes religious, heresy. Then, after decades of rejection, scientists reversed themselves and came to accept each theory. Today, scientists regard deep time, continental drift, meteorite impact, and anthropogenic global warming as established truths.

Thomas Kuhn famously described this process in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s an imperfect advance. Yet this imperfect advance moves science forward.

Since science is practiced by entirely human scientists, there’s really no other route that could be taken.