The beauty of scientific theories is their great explanatory power. For example, the theory of plate tectonics elegantly explains how mountain belts form as a result of convergent plate boundaries, where one plate either crashes into or is subducted beneath another. Prior to the development of plate tectonics, geologists relied on a much more complicated—and indeed, somewhat mysterious—concept to explain the formation of mountain belts: the geosynclinal theory. In simple terms, this theory stated that as sediments piled up in large depressions such as ocean basins, the weight eventually became too much, causing (somehow) the earth to rebound upwards, forming mountains (for additional discussion, see McPhee, 1998). Because of the development of plate tectonics, geology students do not learn about the geosynclinal theory any longer, except as a historical footnote. But, how rapidly was the idea abandoned?

Figure 5 shows the Ngram data for the terms “geosyncline” and “plate tectonics”. It is clear that interest in the geosyncline theory declined rapidly after the early 1960s, following the discovery and acceptance of the theory of plate tectonics within the geosciences community.

Fig. 5. Results of Ngram analysis (1860-2000) of the following search terms: “geosyncline” (blue line) and “plate tectonics” (red line).

It is worth mentioning, though, that while plate tectonics revolutionized geology, the idea still cannot hold a candle to ice cream (Fig. 6)!

Fig. 6. Results of Ngram analysis (1860-2000) of the following search terms: “plate tectonics” (blue line) and “ice cream” (red line).

Jonathan Hendricks is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geology at San Jose State University and is also a research associate at the Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York. Email Dr. Hendricks at jonathan.hendricks@sjsu.edu.

Check back next week for the final installation of Dr. Hendricks’ series on Culturomics and Paleontology!

Missed earlier chapters? Check out Chapter One and Chapter Two!


Crichton, M. 1990. Jurassic Park. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York.

McPhee, J. 1998. Annals of the Former World. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, New York. 696 pp.

Michel, J.-B., Shen, Y.K., Aiden, A.P., Veres, A., Gray, M.K., The Google Books Team, Pickett, J.P., Hoiberg, D., Clancy, D., Norvig, P., Orwant, J., Pinker, S., Nowak, M.A., and Aiden, E.L. 2010. Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books. Science 331, 176-182. DOI: 10.1126/science.1199644.

Patterson, C. 1956. Age of meteorites and the earth. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 10, 230-237.

Semonin, P. 2000. American monster: how the nation’s first prehistoric creature became a symbol of national identity. NYU Press, New York, New York. 502 pp.

The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.


Published On: March 4, 2013

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