Here is some information about myself that I wrote for a
fifth grader who was doing a project about the plate
tectonic theory and the scientists who study it. Maybe you
can use it too.
Plate Tectonics is a really wonderful theory! I have spent
my whole professional life working on it and I never get
bored. Do you know that in science we can never really prove
anything, once and for all? All we can ever do is think up
theories and then test them with measurements to see if they
fit. If you can't think of things to measure in order to
test your theory then no one will pay much attention to it.
That's what happened to the theory of continental drift.
The theory of
continental drift was written by a man named Wegener about
1920 and lots of people were curious about it, but no one
could think of what to measure that would convince everyone
that it was probably right. It's a funny thing, when they
finally did make the convincing measurements, it was by
In the 1940s and
1950s, geologists finally invented good instruments that
they could use on ships to measure things about the deep
ocean floor. Scientists are very curious people. They were
curious about what was down there under all that water, so
they started measuring everything they could, just to find
out. What they found were the mid-ocean ridges with their
earthquakes and volcanoes. And they found lots of evidence
that the oceans were brand new at their centers and older
and older going out to the edges. In that way, they
discovered the process of "sea floor spreading" and, once
they knew that, they suddenly understood how continents can
drift apart to make new oceans.
When I was in
college, all these ideas were just being discovered and it
really sounded exciting to me. Besides, sailing around the
oceans sounded like a great adventure. The combination
sounded perfect: to be able to have fun adventures and, at
the same time, to be working and earning money and making a
contribution to the world. I started studying geology right
away, and when I finished college I applied to go to
graduate school at Scripps Institute of Oceanography to
study for my doctorate.
When I got to
Scripps, I joined a research group that was using very fancy
instruments that we towed on a cable behind the ship, very
near the sea floor. At first I was one of the slaves, just
doing what they said to do, marking records and keeping
track of things, and of course, studying marine geology.
Pretty soon I had learned how it all works and found myself
running my very own expeditions. If you just jump in and pay
attention and do your very best, it's amazing what can
The most exotic
part of my career was when I was working with the tiny
submarine "Alvin". (It is so small that three of us and all
our instruments and oxgen and lunch just barely fit inside.
You can't be claustrophobic if you want to work in Alvin!)
After we had studied the mid-ocean ridges with all the
instruments we could drag from the ships, we used the
submarine to go down and study the sea floor directly. The
ocean is very deep (about 2 miles deep) so the pressure is
too high down there for us to swim out, but we could look
out the portholes and collect samples with the mechanical
arms and check out things that we just hadn't been able to
figure out from looking at the photographs and sonar
records. It is pitch black down there and the water is
freezing cold, so we used lots of lights and wore big puffy
parkas (which made it even more crowded in there).
The most exciting
things we found with Alvin were the hot springs that were
around the new, hot volcanoes. We found super-hot springs
gushing out of the sea floor and they were pretty dramatic
and a little scarey. Even more stange were the the animals
that lived around the springs. A whole bunch of brand new
kinds of animals were there, living in that warm water in
the pitch black of the deep sea. There were giant white
tubes (6-10 feet long) with bright red worms living in them
and giant clams (1 foot long) and octopuses and lots of
crabs and giant anemones and lots of slimey things.
These days I don't
go to sea so much. I got tired of being sea sick and I have
a family that I don't like to leave for too long at a time.
My research these days is mostly on the land, figuring out
how the San Andreas fault got going and how the Rocky
Mountains and all the other wonderful landscapes of our
country were formed.
I am a professor
at the University of California, here in Santa Barbara, and
I really enjoy teaching the students about the Earth. Our
Earth is very beautiful and a little more fragile than we
used to think. It will be the job of these students (and of
you and your friends, too) to help humanity learn to live in
balance with the Earth's life-giving systems. I am sure that
you will do it. We humans are really good at figuring out
what to do, once we realize that there is a problem to
solve. So don't worry too much but do learn all you can
about the Earth and its atmosphere, weather, and waters.
Then, when the time is right, you'll know what to do.
Plate tectonics is
a really good way to start learning about the Earth. It
explains why most of the earthquakes and volcanoes happen.
It explains why there are ocean basins and continents and
mountain belts. It makes it fun to look at the world map. I
hope you have a good world map to study and enjoy, or even
better is a globe. If you don't have a globe, see if your
parents will get you one. I recommend that you get a
"Physical Globe", one that concentrates on the earth
features (mountains, rivers and river flood plains, ocean
floor features, etc.) instead of (or in addition to) a
I wish you good
luck on your project and in your life. And please take good
care of our beautiful and precious planet.