Alfred Wegener smoking a pipe

A beer with Alfred Wegener

Fictional diary entry about meeting German scientist, geophysicist and meteorologist, Alfred Wegener (1880 – 1930).

A couple of weeks ago, I went into a bar in Frankfurt, Germany, and had an interesting conversation there. I was just complaining about the low temperature of my beer, when the guy next to me said: “You think this is a cold beer? Try to drink a beer with a roaring storm outside your tent, horizontal snow and temperatures around minus 49 degree Celsius. That is a cold beer.”

And with one remark, this stranger captivated me. I started to talk with this sad looking man and encountered one of the most interesting lives I have ever come across. Alfred told me about his studies of meteorology and astronomy in Berlin, Heidelberg, and Innsbruck. We talked about his professional career and that he had been a world record holder for the longest non-stop flight with a balloon.

I was stunned by this man – not tall, not athletic and at first sight quite normal and ordinary looking. But taking in his face, I saw his experiences, the adventurous sparkle in his eyes, the sheer volume of knowledge this man had gathered together in his 32 years.

But still, Alfred seamed sad and burned-out. I bought him another beer and asked what had happened.

He told me, that one of his most fearful and crude moments in life just happened at that afternoon in January 1912. He has this idea, this theory about how the Earth’s surface changed and how it was shaped into the way it looks today. He’s had lots of indications that the planet, some million years ago, looked totally different than today. He was talking about dinosaurs from Africa and South America and how they looked similar, about geological features both continents have in common – how volcanoes and mountain chains where formed. In his mind, the Earth’s surface broke into dozens of pieces, like a huge puzzle.

But then he told me about this afternoon – his doomsday, January 6th. He was invited to talk about his idea in front of dozens of experts: geologists, meteorologists, geophysicists and others. He gave a fantastic talk, engaged and disarming. But after he finished: silence. Someone in the audience was coughing. Then, all of a sudden, one man stood up, pointed a finger on him and said: “Nonsense! What evidence do you have? None! Who do you think you are to question a long tradition of geological research?” While speaking to me, Alfred began to shake. It was obvious, that he had to listen to even harsher critique than these quotes. That his idea was brought down by grey bearded men, who have never left their offices and homes to study the Earth as Alfred has done.

I tried to lighten his mood again. I told him about my time on a merchant vessel, about my kids and that my youngest son once took a knife to cut out all the continents from my nautical maps. That he took Africa and South-America and North-America and Europe and glued them together as one giant piece of land. At this moment, Alfred started to laugh. A satisfying laugh, banishing all troubles. We have had a great time at the bar for the rest of the night, drinking and talking, exchanging stories from our nautical adventures and building up theories and ideas what the Earth might have looked like or what it might look in a million years to come. We separated in the early morning, he was leaving to go back to Marburg where he was living and I took a train to Bremen to board a vessel to Sumatra.

Alfred Wegener (left) and Rasmus Villumsen (inuit) Last photo, both died presumably around the 16th November 1930

Looking back, I feel proud to have met Alfred on his day of success. At first, it seemed that his career has ended on that January in 1912 – but finally it turned out that he was right. The continents are moving, constantly changing the face of our planet. Scientists onboard a research vessel found, that there is a magnetic pattern, strikingly similar on both sides of the mid-Atlantic ridge. A pattern that has evolved by Europe and Africa on the one side and the Americas on the other side constantly moving apart for some hundreds of thousands of years. Even better, today, satellites are able to measure the movement of the continents by millimetres showing, that North-America and Europe are separating with more than 2 centimetres each year.

I am thinking back to this evening on January 6th in 1912, when I have met Alfred Wegener from Marburg. I heard he died in 1931, somewhere in Greenland. He never experienced the respect and acceptance of his Plate Tectonic Theory. Nor did he ever get a Nobel Prize.

Simon Schneider
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