In relative terms, the field of plate tectonics is still fairly new — becoming widely accepted only in the mid-1960’s. The idea that massive continents could have drifted apart over millions of years was, however, first expounded on by an amateur American geologist, Frank Bursley, in 1908. Bursley was struck by how the shape between the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America looked as though they could fit together like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and suggested the movement of the continents might also explain the formation of mountain ranges. Bursley provided little evidence and his idea was soon – and easily – dismissed by the scientific establishment who had little time for the “strange” theories from amateurs.


A few years later Bursley’s idea was picked up by a German meteorologist, Alfred Wegener, who was disturbed by the many animal and fossil anomalies which didn’t fit conveniently into the day’s existing theory of how the earth was formed. Again, it was dismissed. This time because the idea came from an outsider – a meteorologist.


And what precisely was the leading theory used by geologists to explain how the exact same fossils of animals and plants could have existed on the opposite sides of different oceans? The answer was “land bridges” — mysterious strips of land, for which no evidence existed, but miraculously allowed animals to peacefully and successfully meander thousands of miles across vast expanses of the world’s oceans. For example, when an ancient horse named Hipparion was found to have lived in both Florida and France, geologists drew a land bridge across the Atlantic Ocean to explain away this disturbing discrepancy. Soon, a variety of other land bridges begun to spring up and populate the world of geological science in order to explain everything from how tapirs existed in both Southeast Asia and South America at the same time to how snails could turn up in both Scandinavia and New England.


Surprisingly, and in the face of a complete and utter lack of evidence, land bridges remained the geological orthodoxy for the next 50 years. In 1944, a British geologist, Arthur Holmes, wrote a book entitled Principles of Physical Geology elaborating on Wegner's theory but it was dismissed by one reviewer who even had the temerity to warn that Holmes presented his arguments so coherently that they might actually be believed by students! In 1955, no less a figure than the esteemed Albert Einstein wrote a ringing endorsement for a book which all but ridiculed the ideas of Wegener and Holmes.


And in 1964, in the face of mounting evidence, a Canadian geologist by the name of Lawrence Morley wrote a paper explaining how magnetic studies of the floor of the Atlantic Ocean were spreading in the exact motion prescribed by the theory of “continental drift.” Morley’s paper was abruptly and rudely dismissed by the editor of the prestigious Journal of Geophysical Research with this now infamous note: “Such speculations make interesting talk at cocktail, but it is not the sort of thing that ought to be published under serious scientific aegis.”


Later that year at a conference of the Royal Society the tide finally began to turn but it wasn’t until 1968 when the same publication, which had rejected Morley’s paper only four years earlier, published the article which gave the science of plate tectonics its name.


The story serves as a wonderful reminder to those scientists who are quick to dismiss ideas from amateurs, outsiders, and unconventional thinkers. To this end, I invite you to watch this 60 Minutes segment on “Cold Fusion” and pay special attention to the outright dismissal of the idea by some of today’s leading experts. Could they be wrong? I don’t purport to know the answer but history suggests that these scientific experts should at least entertain the notion that they might be wrong.


The same is true of the theories of Aubrey de Grey, an outsider from the field of computer science, who is strongly challenging today’s conventional wisdom on the “science of aging.”