How can men know so much but refuse to accept the obvious?

A scientist ahead of his time

By Roger Childs

One of the delights of teaching geography in the late 1960s and 1970s was to be living through the unfolding revolution in plate tectonics. Students found it fascinating to learn about how continents moved on the Earth’s surface. As the years passed, more and more breakthroughs were made which proved that German scientist Alfred Wegener’s theories of continental drift were fundamentally accurate. 

Wegener (1880 -1930) had a very inquisitive mind and a wide interest in the sciences which ranged from meteorology to astronomy. He also had a fascination with Greenland and was part of the first expedition to cross the northern part of the remote Arctic island. His devoted wife Else, who was the daughter of famous climatologist William Köppen, enthusiastically supported him all the way.

Bringing Wegener and his family to life

Will you name a bit of Greenland after me? Kate says you can. She says to name a bit after her too. I suppose you better find something for Hilde as well. Wegener’s youngest daughter Lotte to her father on the eve of his final expedition. 

In Wegener’s Jigsaw Clare Dudman does a superb job in telling the great man’s story. You sometimes wonder if a male writer can realistically tell a story in the role of a woman and vice versa. Dudman proves that it’s no problem. From his childhood as an orphan through his far-reaching scientific career and on to his death in the icy wastes of southern Greenland, the author is a highly convincing Alfred Wegener.

The first person narrative works brilliantly and the reader gets wonderful insights into the mind of a man who was constantly torn between his scientific endeavours and his devoted family. Early on there are some wonderful descriptions of sailing over the countryside in hot air balloons when Wegener started wondering about how landscapes were formed and the possibilities that the continents were once joined up. There are also vivid and compelling accounts of crossing the polar wastes of Greenland, coping with the intense cold, thick snow drifts and fierce winds, and the tragic deaths of ponies, dogs and men. 

Identifying the history of the time

Why are German people still being punished?

Wegener lived through a time of revolutionary changes in society, the arts, technology and major political events. He was called up to fight in World War One and spent years in the trenches. He was wounded in the neck, but survived the four year conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of Germans. There are vivid descriptions of the horrors of the war and of the tough times following the armistice when Germany faced grim food shortages and runaway inflation. The country also suffered from having to pay huge reparations to the French, endured humiliating restrictions and experienced intermittent political instability.

Dudman has a comprehensive understanding of the sciences Wegener specialised in, and while explaining key aspects of Wegener’s discoveries, experiments and theories, she avoids being too technical. She also covers in detail the widespread scepticism of his continental drift ideas and the derision he received from many fellow scientists.

Alfred Wegener was one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century and sadly so much of what he achieved was not fully appreciated when he was alive. In a later time he would have won a Nobel Prize. Amongst his many achievements, he broke records in balloon flights, and worked out how raindrops form and why the moon has craters.

Clare Dudman has brought this passionate scientist and family man vividly to life, and Wegener’s Jigsaw is in the words of the Independent  reviewer  A splendid vehicle for a depiction of a time, not so long ago, when science could cost you your life.