Continental drift

In a 1999 interview David Bowie said that “the potential for what the Internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable.” I had no problem imagining the good, it was the bad where my imagination failed. The web of the late 90s was a cornucopia of wonder, delight, and inspiration. So was the blogosophere of the early 2000s. I know a lot of us are nostalgic for those eras, and depressed about how things have turned out. The bad is really quite bad, and sometimes I feel like there’s no way forward.

And then something wonderful happens. This time the spark was David Grinspoon aka @DrFunkySpoon. I’ve written before about a Long Now talk in which he posits that we might not just be living through the beginning of a geological epoch called the Anthropocene but rather — and far more profoundly — the dawn of an eon that he calls the Sapiezoic. Today he posted a stunning new visualization of plate tectonics.

As always when I think about plate tectonics, I’m reminded of the high school science teacher who introduced me to the topic. His name is John Ousey, and this happened almost 50 years ago. What always stuck with me is the way he presented it. Back then, plate tectonics was a new idea. As Mr. Ousey (he later became Dr. Ousey) described the continents sliding apart, I can still see the bemused look on his face. He was clearly wrestling with the concept, unsure whether to believe things really happen that way. That healthy skepticism, coupled with trust in the scientific process, made an indelible impression on me.

One of the wonders of the Internet is the ability to find people. It took some sleuthing, but I did find him and this ensued.

That’s the kind of magic that can still happen, that does happen all the time.

I learned for the first time that John Ousey’s introduction to plate tectonics came by way of “weekend courses taught by the great teacher/researcher Ehrling Dorf of Princeton” who was himself perhaps “not totally convinced.” Despite uncertainty, which he acknowledged, John Ousey was happy to share an important new idea with his Earth science class.

What a privilege to be able to thank him, after all these years, for being a great teacher who helped me form a scientific sensibility that has never mattered more than now. And to share a moment of appreciation for an extraordinary new visualization of the process once known as continental drift. Yes, there’s a dark side to our connected world, darker than I was once willing to imagine. But there is also so much light. It’s always helpful to consider deep geological time. That video shows a billion years of planetary churn. We’ve only been connected like this for 25 years. Maybe we’ll figure it out. For today, at least, I choose to believe that we will.

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4 thoughts on “Continental drift

  1. Thanks for this story and the results of seeking out Mr Ousey. It says everything about the role of one teacher.

    Continental drift / plate tectonics played a pivotal role for me, too. After a first year of university and feeling “adrift” in my choice of computer science, it was a memorable issue of National Geographic that I had kept for some reason and it nudged me to try an intro Geology class.

    Dr Wehmiller enthralled me and it changed everything, moving on to grad school at ASU was when those comp sci classes came alive with purpose.

    Another lucky part of being at ASU was learning from Dr Robert Dietz who was the co-discoverer of sea floor spreading in the early 1960s, one of the pieces that came to support Plate Tectonics.

    That a theory, supported by emerging evidence, could upend conventions in science left a permanent mark on me.

    Thanks again- I’d be ever grateful if your story reconnecting could end up in the collection I run at but of course just seeing it in blog form is beautiful

  2. These moments of renewed contact have been deeply sustaining during the pandemic for me too. My teacher story involves Facebook, one of the most useful and destructive platforms on the Web. Which just goes to show … something. (Perhaps I can find a suitable description in Milton somewhere.) At any rate, I woke up one pandemic morning with a strong desire to find and thank the one truly great English teacher I had in high school. I’d inquired about Mrs. Price many times over the years, usually asking my brother (himself a high school English teacher in a nearby system) if he knew anything about where Mrs. Price might be. He always had a little information but never quite enough for me to pursue. Google didn’t help much, as she had a very small presence on the Web and (as I later discovered) had retired many years ago at a relatively young age.

    Then I searched Facebook, and there she was.

    It’s been a joyous reunion because, like you, I got to show my gratitude after many years to a major influence in my life–and in doing so, was vividly reminded that the work of our work proceeds along many vectors and through many invisible channels. Good to remember that in the dark times.

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