1. Education

Sam Carey, Last of the Giants

This discredited thinker is still a model geologist.


warren carey

Sam Carey at age 76.

Photo (c) Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

S. Warren "Sam" Carey died in 2002 at age 90, remembered by only a few circles of geologists. But I salute him for the kind of scientist he was.

Carey was born in 1911 in southeastern Australia and grew up at the end of the golden age of field geology. That era began a century before with the work of William "Strata" Smith in England, and the following generations fanned out across the globe, often alone in the field, to fill in the blanks in the geologic map. Carey went to New Guinea in the 1930s and there gained a sense of the power of tectonic motions: large-scale forces that squeeze, tilt, and uplift whole regions. After earning his Ph.D. he continued to explore New Guinea for oil companies, and he served there with distinction during World War II.

Carey's Peculiar Idea

Geologists in the southern hemisphere have a history of independent thinking, due partly to isolation and partly to the different geology. When Alfred Wegener published a theory of continental motion, his ideas fell on fertile ground there. The southern continents have clear links to each other, being fragments of the ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland.

Investigating "continental drift" on his own, Carey made a large globe on which he manipulated detailed models of the continents. Dissatisfied with his results, he eventually concluded that the continents fit together properly only on a globe that had once been smaller. With that core idea, many other details seemed to fall in place.

For a decade starting in the mid-1950s, Carey's theory of Earth expansion was taken seriously. It made sense on the large scale, at the level of detail known at the time. The man was a factor as well. Both a vigorous lecturer and an articulate writer, Carey was a formidable opponent in argument. Invited to Yale University in 1958, he came into the American arena as if entering a lion's den. Nothing ever budged him from his convictions. Even if he didn't convince his whole audience, many of his peers nevertheless were moved to frame their own fruitful hypotheses. Those became today's theory of plate tectonics.

It was not public debate that buried his arguments, but a growing body of knowledge during the 1950s and 1960s and the rise of a better theory to explain them. Good maps of the seafloor, progress in seismology, large paleomagnetic databases and precision measurements of crustal motions made for more interesting science than Carey's grand scheme. The youthful age of geology with its parade of leaders and heroes—Werner, Lyell, Darwin, Kelvin, Wegener, and last of all Carey—ended with the irresistible collective move to plate tectonics.

A Model Earth Scientist

I respect Sam Carey for earning his opinions honestly, through years of research, reflection, and correspondence. Unlike his current defenders on the Web, he was no armchair theorist, not a parrot of received wisdom but an original thinker who worked face-to-face with both the rocks and his peers. I admire him for the vigor with which he argued and promoted his ideas—by publishing and lecturing, to be sure, but more impressively by convening symposiums. One cannot simply send out invitations; it takes persuasion, diplomacy, and perseverance to make the arrangements and ensure that people will come and give their best.

And I commend Carey for the energy he gave back to geology. In 1946 the University of Tasmania named him founding chairman of its new department of geology. Carey recruited the faculty and taught classes for 30 years until his retirement. He was by all accounts an excellent teacher. A lifelong enemy of scientific dogma, he never forced any doctrines on his students. Some of his pupils joined the distinguished professionals who have made Australia a center of science out of proportion to its population. Truly Carey's career at an isolated university shows that on a round Earth, every place is the center of the world.

A Personal Note

When Stanford University Press published Carey's "Theories of the Earth and Universe" (1988), I was its copyeditor. The experience was humbling; nothing was beneath his notice. In the end, I got to write the slipcover copy.

Carey told me that one of his beneficial practices was to take a bit of Scotch as his nightcap and, during that time, to focus his mind on an outstanding problem of his day. A solution would commonly come to him during the night, courtesy of his subconscious.

Carey's visit to Stanford in late 1987 was the second time I saw him. During a visit ten years before, he stood up to the U.S. Geological Survey's old-timers as they sought to shake his belief in an expanding Earth. I think it was mainly a show for the younger staffers. But when I read the 1958 book where he first presented his theory, I drew a permanent lesson from it—there's a lot of wiggle room in our picture of the universe, and science is ill served when it avoids bold ideas, even though most of them are wrong.

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