Professor Iain Stewart

The science and characters behind one of the greatest breakthroughs of the 20th-century feature in a new book written by University of Plymouth academic and TV presenter, Professor Iain Stewart.

Part of the new Ladybird Expert series, Plate Tectonics explores the Earth's building blocks and the geophysical theory that changed the way we look at the world.

Readers will learn about the puzzle pieces that make up the Earth, monsoon-like currents in our planet's radioactive interior, magnetic force lines and how the ocean would look without water. Professor Stewart, Director of the University’s Sustainable Earth Institute, is well known for his efforts to make complex elements of earth science appeal to a non-scientific audience having hosted television series including Journeys from the Centre of the Earth, Earth: The Power of the Planet, Volcano Live and Rise of the Continents.

Speaking about his new book, he said:

“Every geology textbook in the world features plate tectonics and mentions the great scientists, but few people really look at the personalities of those involved. What many people probably don’t realise is that while there had been studies for many decades, the first unifying theory of how our planet works came together in just five years of the 1960s. It is a story of a small group of radical thinkers that triggered a genuine revolution in earth science, and it is fantastic to be able to bring this modern tale of remarkable human endeavour to a new audience in this way.”

Presented in the iconic Ladybird style, Plate Tectonics is designed for adults with the aim of being accessible, insightful and authoritative.

It provides information about the science of plate tectonics and the role it has played in creating the world we see today, but also charts the history of its discovery as a phenomenon.

Among the notable historic figures to feature are Captain Robert Falcon Scott who, during his ill-fated mission to the Antarctic in 1912, collected rock samples which were found to be full of fossilized plant debris also found in India and South America.

It also carries the stories of geologists, geophysicists, gentleman scientists and clergymen who noticed trends about the nature of the planet but were unable to accurately pin down their precise cause.

But its main focus is on a small band of geophysicists and ocean scientists working across just a handful of institutions, who in the 1960s rewrote the rule book on how the earth’s natural features formed.

A mix of world-renowned scientists and young graduate students, they imagined a new world of spreading sea floors and reversing magnetic fields before testing their ideas by drilling into the deep ocean crust.

It all culminated in 1968 when a trio of young graduate geoscientists divided the world into ‘plates’ and used palaeomagnetic data to calculate their rates of motion. This theory – which finally explained mountains and oceans, earthquakes and volcanoes – would subsequently become known as plate tectonics. 

Writing in the book, Professor Stewart says:

“Today, half a century on, it is hard to imagine thinking about our planet without the lens of plate tectonics. The theory not only sits at the heart of our scientific understanding of how the earth works, it has infiltrated into everyday life. But few other than earth scientists appreciate the deep roots and revolutionary currents that led to what would be one of the great scientific breakthroughs of the 20th-century.”

Plate Tectonics – part of the Ladybird Expert series – will be released on Thursday 22 March, priced £7.99.

Illustrations from Plate Tectonics by Professor Iain Stewart

Illustration from Plate Tectonics Ladybird book
Illustration from Plate Tectonics Ladybird book
Illustration from Plate Tectonics Ladybird book
Thermal image of Plymouth taken by Matthew Fox, Environmental Building Group - Special Commendation in Visions of Sustainability 2015

Sustainable Earth Institute

The Sustainable Earth Institute is about promoting a new way of thinking about the future of our world.
We bring researchers together with businesses, community groups and individuals to develop cutting-edge research and innovative approaches that build resilience to global challenges. 
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The fantastic surrounding geology makes Plymouth the perfect place to study Earth sciences.
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Earth Sciences at Plymouth