OBITUARY: Pioneering geophysicist Lawrence Morley broke new ground – by Ron Csillag (Globe and Mail – May 15, 2013)

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Sometime in 1963, Lawrence Morley proposed an outlandish theory: That rocks on the ocean floor were imprinted with a record of the direction and intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field. Because the planet’s magnetic polarity reversed direction every half-million years or so, he believed that iron-rich rocks and ridges on the sea floor “remembered” field reversals by locking into place their magnetic properties at the time of formation. As on the Earth’s surface, rocks miles beneath the ocean told a story, he believed.

Dr. Morley based this highly speculative theory on ocean surveys that had shown alternating bands of normal and reverse magnetism in the ocean’s crust. The patterns were so distinct that undersea maps, in black and white to represent the two magnetic orientations, resembled zebra stripes. It was all very puzzling.

“I believe,” he wrote, despite the mystery, “that there still is a wealth of unexpected information magnetically frozen in the rocks of the ocean basin floors.”

He completed a paper on his conclusions, building on earlier theories on continental drift and the spreading out of the seafloor. It was rejected. The journal’s referee, in a snub now well-known in the scientific community, tartly noted that the idea may be interesting for “talk at cocktail parties, but it is not the sort of thing that ought to be published under serious scientific aegis.”

Bill Bryson’s 2003 book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, related how one geologist later described Dr. Morley’s report as “probably the most significant paper in the earth sciences ever to be denied publication.”

A few months later, two Cambridge University geophysicists, Drummond Matthews and Fred Vine, independently proposed the same theory, and their paper was published in the influential journal Nature. (“It was a dreadful paper,” Prof. Vine later conceded, “really just a letter to Nature.”’)

In any event, the report was hailed as a breakthrough and it gained immediate traction. Now vindicated, Dr. Morley and his contributions were duly acknowledged, and virtually overnight, the Vine-Matthews-Morley hypothesis (also known as the Morley-Vine-Matthews hypothesis) was accepted as the first scientific confirmation of the seafloor spreading theory of continental drift.

“He was never bitter about his paper being rejected, while the second one was accepted,” said Robin Riddihough, former chief scientist of the Geological Survey of Canada. “He was just happy they were both right.”

Dr. Morley’s work also provided the underpinnings for today’s accepted theory of plate tectonics – that Earth’s crust is a collection of rigid plates moving in relation to each other, accounting for much of the planet’s surface behaviour.

Dr. Morley, who died near Owen Sound, Ont. on April 22 (fittingly, Earth Day) at 93, was a globally acclaimed geophysicist who laid much of the groundwork for geological advances in Canada.

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