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The Nazis Were on to Continental Drift Before Everyone Else

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Wikimedia Commons

“The dream of a great poet.”

“A fairy tale.”

“Delirious ravings.”

“Moving crust disease and wandering pole plague.”

“Germanic pseudoscience.”

In the early 20th century, all these terms—and dozens of other equally colorful ones—were hurled at an emerging scientific idea that we’ve since come to accept as irrefutable and treat as common knowledge.

You may know it as the science of plate tectonics, the explanation of the mechanics of how the puzzle pieces that make up the earth’s surface move around and came to settle (somewhat) into the position they’re in today. In its infancy, though, the idea was known as continental drift, or continental displacement, and was widely regarded by geologists as BS.

Catch My Drift?

Continental drift was proposed by German scientist Alfred Wegener, an untenured and unsalaried lecturer at the University of Marburg. Geology was not his field—he specialized in meteorology and astronomy—but after he became fascinated with the apparent matching coastlines of the various continents while browsing through an atlas, he threw disciplinary boundaries to the wind and pursued his idea. What he proposed was that the continents had once all been joined together in a larger landmass he dubbed the Urkontinent, and was later called  Pangaea (from the Greek pan- (“all”) and gaia (“earth”). At some point in time, the seams running along the supercontinent became unraveled and Pangaea broke into smaller pieces, which drifted, slowly but surely, into their current positions. As evidence, he pointed to live and fossil plants and animals on opposite sides of oceans that were the same or very similar, and geological formations that abruptly ended at the edge of one continent and picked up again on another’s shores.

Wegener first presented his theory of continental drift in a lecture to Frankfurt’s Geological Association in 1912, then in a journal article months later, and finally in a book published shortly after he returned from service in World War I. None of this received very much attention until the book was published in English, at which point Wegener was ridiculed by scientists in Britain, the United States, and even his own country. They poked holes in his evidence and his methods, picked at his credentials, and blasted him for not providing a plausible mechanism powerful enough to actually move the continents.

Wegener worked through the assault, addressing valid criticisms with additional evidence, correcting mistakes, and hypothesizing six different mechanisms for the continents’ drift in new editions of his work. Sadly, he died in 1930 on an expedition to Greenland, decades before his theory began to see widespread acceptance with the discovery of seafloor spreading, Wadati-Benioff zones, and other supporting data and evidence.

Friends in Weird Places

Not all the early reactions to continental drift were harsh, though. In the bizarre intellectual atmosphere of the Third Reich, Wegener’s theory had support and approval from an unlikely champion: the Nazi propaganda machine.

While Nazi science is largely remembered today for its more outrageous ideas and experiments, both real and apocryphal—flying saucers, secret Antarctic bases, talking dogs, supersoldiers, ancient Aryan ruins, and more—the Nazis did come down on the right side of continental drifting before most other geologists did.

Under the Nazis, Deutscher Verlag of Berlin published a bimonthly propaganda magazine called Signal. It was distributed throughout Germany, its allied nations and German-occupied areas in more than 20 languages.  It featured war reports, essays on national socialist policies, German technology innovations, and drawings and photographs, all meant to praise the German government and its allies.

The first issue of 1941, mostly devoted to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, contained a peculiar piece of popular science writing: a two-page article on continental drift. In the piece, titled “And Yet They Do Move,” writer K. von Philippoff defended Wegener’s ideas, citing then-new data that showed an increasing distance between the American and European continents (and replicating one of Wegener’s own mistakes by placing too much emphasis on longitudinal measurements that were not accurate enough at the time to really demonstrate his conclusions) and reminding readers of Wegener’s other evidence, like the scattered flora and fauna and the fit of various continental coastlines. He concluded that continental drift provided a plausible and satisfactory answer to many geological and biological questions that couldn’t otherwise be explained and that “no mistake was possible” about the validity of Wegener’s theory.

While continental drift had a few supporters scattered here and there (like British geologist Arthur Holmes, whose own model of the mechanism for the movement of continents featured an early consideration of seafloor spreading), von Philippoff’s article is notable in that its presence in an official German propaganda magazine, reflecting the views of the government, implies approval and support by at least some members of the Nazi higher-ups. For all the horror and suffering they unleashed upon the world, history’s greatest villains were at least far ahead of their time in the field of geology.

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Courtesy Murdoch University
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Animals
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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Space
Study Suggests There's Water Beneath the Moon's Surface
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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Astronauts may not need to go far to find water outside Earth. As CNN reports, Brown University scientists Ralph E. Milliken and Shuai Li suspect there are significant amounts of water churning within the Moon’s interior.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, lean on the discovery of glass beads encased in the Moon’s volcanic rock deposits. As recently as 100 million years ago, the Earth’s moon was a hotbed of volcanic activity. Evidence of that volatile time can still be found in the ancient ash and volcanic rock that’s scattered across the surface.

Using satellite imagery, the researchers identified tiny water droplets preserved inside glass beads that formed in the volcanic deposits. While water makes up a small fraction of each bead, its presence suggests there’s significantly more of it making up the Moon’s mantle.

Milliken and Li aren't the first scientists to notice water in lunar rocks. In 2008, volcanic materials collected from the Moon during the Apollo missions of 1971 and 1972 were revealed to contain the same water-flecked glass beads that the Brown scientists made the basis of their recent study. They took their research further by analyzing images captured across the face of the Moon and quickly saw the Apollo rocks represented a larger trend. "The distribution of these water-rich deposits is the key thing," Milliken said in a press statement. "They're spread across the surface, which tells us that the water found in the Apollo samples isn't a one-off. Lunar pyroclastics seem to be universally water-rich, which suggests the same may be true of the mantle."

The study challenges what we know about the Moon's formation, which scientists think occurred when a planet-sized object slammed into the Earth 4.5 billion years ago. "The growing evidence for water inside the Moon suggests that water did somehow survive, or that it was brought in shortly after the impact by asteroids or comets before the Moon had completely solidified," Li said. "The exact origin of water in the lunar interior is still a big question."

The findings also hold exciting possibilities for the future of space travel. NASA scientists have already considered turning the Moon into a water station for astronauts on their way to Mars. If water on the celestial body is really as abundant as the evidence may suggest, figuring out how to access that resource will definitely be on NASA's agenda.

[h/t CNN]

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