When rocks were controversial

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

Lawrence Morley played a role in developing and supporting the theory of plate tectonics.

Bryson Masse

Algonquin College Journalism Program

When Lawrence Morley first attempted to prove that plate tectonics could be solved by a mysterious undersea phenomenon, his theory was met with complete denial. It was not until months later, when two geophysics students at the University of Cambridge proposed a similar idea, that Nature, an eminent science journal, published the ground breaking conclusion.

Today, plate tectonics help us to understand our planet’s history even better. The concept is fairly simple: there are plates beneath the earth’s crust that gradually move over time, colliding with, or sliding under other plates. But in the 1960s’ the subject was a controversial one.

While a radar operator during World War II, and later working with prospectors to discover iron ore in the Canadian wilderness, Morley learned a thing or two about magnets. At the time continental drift – which later became plate tectonics – was not a mainstream idea. Most people did not buy into the concept of the ground constantly moving beneath their feet. Morley was the exception. After seeing the zebra-like stripes of magnetic polarization on seabed ridges, he developed his idea. He believed that the magnetic polarization was proof the seabed grew from magma bursting from the divide between plates and was imprinted with the orientation of the earth’s magnetic field as it cooled.

Morley’s theory would become the turning point that revealed the true nature of our world’s crust. It took a few years for the theory to be accepted, but with the numbers found in the work of Cambridge graduates Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews, the Morley-Vine-Matthews Hypothesis was given its due in 1963. In recognition of his work, Morley was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 2014.

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