Two years ago this week, one of our greatest scientists quietly passed away. Although among the world’s unheralded heroes, the life of Lawrence Morley deserves our attention. He helped prove plate tectonics, but in a fluke too common in science publishing, the brain prize went to a lucky Cambridge grad student instead. The story of his paper’s rejection by Nature makes as bitter a tale as any you will find in the history of science.
To know Morley’s story, we need to go back to 1960, when Alfred Wegener’s much maligned theory of continental drift was getting a facelift. Wegener’s idea that continents “plow through” oceanic crust had been scientifically faulted for over 40 years – there were no scars trailing the continents as they scratched their way through ocean crust and there was no known power source strong enough to do the job. However, overwhelming evidence from paleoclimate and fossil distribution insisted that continents must move.
Continental drift evolved into plate tectonics between 1958 and 1968. It was a fascinating ten years. Geophysics was the engine of discovery. Heat patterns on the seafloor (hottest near the newly discovered mid-oceanic rifts) and magnetic patterns that mirrored each other across those rifts were key evidence that continents move. Heat was fairly easy to measure and understand. This played a part in 1962 paper by Princeton’s Harry Hess. Dr Hess suggested that the mid-ocean rifts were splitting the seafloor, widening it and pushing the continents apart. Rather than drifting, the continents were on a slowly moving conveyor belt. Hot magma oozed out at the rifts, separated, and cooled as it got further from the center. Temperature data confirmed the idea. Professor Hess was eminently respected, a brilliant geophysicist. Yet he cautiously dubbed his revolutionary paper geopoetry and it was ridiculed by the stubborn majority anti-drift crowd. The heat distribution was a coincidence, they said.
But soon an entirely independent set of data was interpreted to support Hess’s seafloor spreading theory. An industrious Brit, Ron Mason, attached himself to a US Navy research ship which was mapping the depths of the Pacific. The Navy was searching hiding places that might conceal enemy cold war spy submarines. Mason convinced the Navy that dragging a magnetometer behind their ship would yield some useful information. They agreed, but the raw data – gathered over a two year period in the 1950s – was deemed classified. However, Mason was allowed to publish an edited map of the results. It became known as the zebra-stripe map. Ron Mason could not explain the odd pattern.
Some of the geophysicists who studied the 1957 map (published in 1961 by the Geological Society of America and reprinted here with their permission) proposed that the stripes were due to a weird distribution of magnetic minerals in the seafloor. Others suggested that Mason’s editing and processing caused data artifacts. But the Canadian Lawrence Morley noted that alternating reversed polarity from the Earth’s magnetic field had become embedded in the rocks as they spread from rifts and cooled. Melted iron-rich rocks acquire the magnetic orientation of the Earth’s prevailing field. It gets locked in when the rocks solidify. Morley sent his idea to Nature in June 1963. They rejected it, partly because Morley’s idea contained the non-conforming notion of seafloor spreading, and partly because Morley’s hypothesis was almost purely qualitative – the Navy would not release the actual data, just the map, so he could not describe the phenomena quantitatively. However, his explanation was completely on the mark. Here is part of what he wrote to Nature in his failed submission:
“If one accepts, in principle, the concept of mantle convection currents rising under the ocean ridges, traveling horizontally under the ocean floor, and sinking at ocean troughs, one cannot escape the argument that the upwelling rock under the ocean ridge, as it rises above the Curie Point geotherm, must become magnetized in the direction of the Earth’s field prevailing at the time. . . it stands to reason that a linear magnetic anomaly pattern of the type observed would result.” 
Morley arrived at his insight after years of studying the magnetic properties of rocks. After serving five years as an officer in the Canadian Navy during World War II, Morley took a job with a small geophysical company prospecting for magnetic iron ore in the north. His magnetometer – the best available at the time – was not much better than the tool Sir William Gilbert, who discovered the Earth is a magnet, had used 300 years earlier. Morley measured the intensity of magnetism by simply watching a needle balance horizontally on a knife edge. If he trudged across a magnetic vein embedded within the granite at his feet, the needle sometimes deflected further downwards. “This was high-tech at the time. It would take a whole day to collect a mile-long magnetic profile of data. This tedious work, combined with unbelievable clouds of mosquitoes in the Canadian Shield,” he said later.  Hiking all day across brutal terrain was the only way to capture a few magnetic data points in 1946. But a year later, his data collection would speed up a hundred-fold.
When Morley heard about the potential use of airplanes towing magnetometers on long cables, he vowed he would never go back into the bush with a hand-held device. The airborne tool had been perfected by Gulf Research and Development Corporation just before the Second World War. The oil company planned to use it to outline potential hydrocarbon basins, but loaned the equipment to the US Navy during the war as a search tool against enemy submarines. The war was over when Morley, by then working in the Canadian Shield and nursing mosquito bites, heard a talk about the airborne magnetometer. He realized he’d rather fly in a recycled navy warplane than spend five minutes trying to get a single point reading.
Gulf was headquartered in Pittsburgh; Morley was in Ontario. Getting across the Canadian-American border was a problem. According to historian Henry Frankel, Morley said, “I couldn’t get a job unless I had a visa, and I couldn’t get a visa unless I had a job. I actually sneaked across the border.”  Morley presented himself to Gulf, but they wouldn’t hire him as a researcher without a PhD. Instead, they referred him to a small independent contractor. Morley spent 1947 and 1948 as their party chief, flying an aeromagnetic survey in Venezuela and Colombia over the Llanos Basin, east of the Andes. It was the world’s first commercial aeromagnetic survey and Morley proved that a huge tract of land could be surveyed from the air by peering through thick inaccessible jungle and cloudy rain forest to assess mineral deposits and oil basins. Morley returned to Canada, determined to use aeromagnetic surveys to explore the vast Canadian Shield.
Back in Ontario, he realized that learning theoretical geophysics would be useful. Because of the war, his BSc had been truncated. Morley returned to the University of Toronto where Tuzo Wilson became his PhD supervisor. Tuzo Wilson was already legendary in both geology and geophysics. Canada’s first geophysicist, Wilson would later play a pivotal role in plate tectonics theory by solving a thorny problem with crustal motion along mid-oceanic ridges and for proposing that the Hawaiian islands came to life from a hotspot under the moving Pacific plate.
Wilson, in 1949, introduced Morley to the idea of continental drift. Although the great Wilson had not yet made up his own mind about the theory, Lawrence Morley became intrigued. He was even more captivated when, as part of his preparation for graduate research, he encountered a new paper on palaeomagnetism. Its author suggested that the magnetism of ancient rocks might offer evidence for continental drift.  If one could plot old magnetic pole positions, one could track the ancient movement of the continents. This was fifteen years before plate tectonics would enter mainstream geology. It was still a fringe science with many more detractors than supporters. Nevertheless, for his doctoral thesis, Morley pursued the remnant magnetism of the Precambrian Shield’s rocks. But the polar drift data he sought eluded him – geophysical equipment in 1950 was simply not accurate enough. Background noise and primitive equipment overwhelmed his efforts. “I could not get a constant direction. I couldn’t clean the samples enough to get a consistent direction,” he said.  Morley’s effort to prove continental drift through remnant magnetism failed; nevertheless, his research was sound and he earned his doctorate.
In 1952, he became the first geophysicist to work for the Geological Survey of Canada. Most of his time was now spent planning and supervising government aeromagnetic surveys to encourage mineral exploration. Data collecting was contracted at a cost of $30 million dollars and took 17 years to complete. “The benefits of this survey to the mining industry in Canada have never been calculated, but they must be more than several billion dollars and are still going strong,” he wrote in his reminiscent article The Zebra Pattern.  It was this government data that inspired diamond prospecting in the Northwest Territories and led to ore discoveries from Newfoundland to the Yukon.
As an expert in magnetic properties of rocks, Lawrence Morley was drawn to Ron Mason’s zebra-pattern magnetism map of the Pacific Ocean. Morley, working at the Geological Survey of Canada, was the first to correctly interpret the alternating stripes as direct evidence of seafloor spreading. He called it his “Eureka Moment.” The stripes, he believed, were because new seafloor was being created by magma at oceanic rifts, and as it cooled into solid rock, the magnetic polarity of the moment was captured. Hence, the stripes. Morley was right. He tried to get his paper published in Nature, the prestigious British science journal, in February 1963. He penned a simple, non-analytic interpretation of Ron Mason’s zebra-striped map, but the journal and the geophysical community were not ready to entertain musings that linked magnetic anomalies to the spreading seafloor.
However, Morley had perfectly captured the solution. Independently, and just a few months later, the British team of Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews came to the same conclusion. They were successfully published, in Nature, in September, 1963. It was unfortunate timing for Morley – and for Vine and Matthews, who likely didn’t know about the Canadian work. But the entire episode points to a fundamental problem with peer-reviewed publication. As Morley himself noted, “I knew that when a scientific paper is submitted to a journal, the editors choose reviewers who are experts on the topic being discussed. But the very expertise that makes them appropriate reviewers also generates a conflict of interest: they have a vested interest in the outcome of the debate.”  Morley’s reviewer, who remains anonymous, may have felt seafloor magnetic zebra stripes prove nothing, and may have been staunchly opposed to the concept of continental drift. Or he may have been aware of the research at Cambridge wanted those scientists to receive credit. Morley was told that Nature did not have room to print his short paper. Lawrence Morley quickly dispatched it to another research journal, which also rejected it. There, the anonymous reviewer scolded that although Morley’s idea was interesting, it was best discussed over martinis, rather than published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
Perhaps the real problem was that Morley’s explanation of the zebra pattern was qualitative, not quantitative. The zebra map’s raw data were still classified, so Morley did not have the actual numerical values in hand, nor did he have other marine data that might have corroborated the Pacific magnetic set. At Cambridge, scientists had been gathering similar, albeit unclassified, data from the Indian Ocean and North Atlantic long before Frederick Vine became a grad student there, so the Matthews and Vine article had the university’s considerable quantitative material to draw upon for their analysis. Nevertheless, Dr Norman Watkins in 1974 wrote in Geology that Morley’s theory was “the most significant paper in earth sciences ever to be denied publication.” Instead, “Magnetic Anomalies over Oceanic Ridges” by Matthews and Vine was submitted to Nature (the same journal which had rejected Morley) in July and was published in September 1963. The Cambridge paper had numerical data which Morley’s work lacked, but the interpretation and results were the same. When it became apparent Lawrence Morley had previously tried to publish the same conclusion, he was also belatedly credited in the Morley-Vine-Matthews Hypothesis.
I have read a few misguided stories that claim Lawrence Morley was so bitter from the experience that he disappeared and was never heard from again. I guess that would be one way to end this piece. But instead of sinking into oblivion, Morley served as head of geophysics at the Canadian Geological Survey for the next 17 years – he stayed in earth science research for over 50 years. As founder of the Canadian Remote Sensing Society, he slowly shifted his focus from earth-bound geophysics to space-probing geophysics. Through that society, and later Natural Resources Canada, he pioneered the ground-breaking Radarsat system of satellite imaging as a way to monitor floods, fires, urban sprawl, sea ice changes, Russian Arctic invasions, and as an aid to mineral exploration.
One of Lawrence Morley’s last public acts was a defiant stand against the conspired sale of the Canadian government’s advanced Radarsat-2 series of satellites (and the Canadarm) to foreign interests. Morley had been instrumental in the creation of Radarsat. He lamented the potential loss of a cutting-edge system that Canadian taxpayers spent billions of dollars developing. He was especially upset that the buyer would be American defense contractor Alliant Techsystems. Morley was 88 years old in 2008 when he went on a spirited speaking and letter-writing campaign, saying that the sale would be a blow to Canadian sovereignty. Others joined the cause, including Canada’s first astronaut, Marc Garneau, who was by then a member of parliament.
They won. Today, Canada still has a space agency, Radarsat satellites, and the Canadarm. Invoking the Canada Investment Act, it was the first time in 23 years that an impending sale was stopped by the federal government on the basis of “net benefit” to Canada. Jim Prentice, Industry Minister (and now Alberta’s premier) confirmed in a 2008 news conference that sovereignty questions over the transfer of Radarsat-2 technology were factors in halting the sale. Lawrence Morley was elated. The former Navy officer, geophysicist, space pioneer, and plate tectonics revolutionary was once again proven right.
1. Morley, Lawrence (1963). Morley’s “Letter” from John Lear’s article, “Canada’s unappreciated role as scientific innovator,” Saturday Review (2 Sep 1967), p 47.
2. Morley, Lawrence (2001). “The Zebra Pattern,” Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth, edited by Naomi Oreskes. p 70. Westview Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
3. Frankel, Henry R. (1987). The Continental Drift Controversy: Evolution into Plate Tectonics, Vol 4, p 126. Cambridge University Press.
4. The paper that deeply influenced Morley’s thesis choice was John Graham’s 1949 monograph, “The Stability and Significance of Magnetism in Sedimentary Rocks.”
5. Frankel, Henry R. (1987). The Continental Drift Controversy: Evolution into Plate Tectonics, Vol 4, p 126. Cambridge University Press.
6. Morley, Lawrence (2001). “The Zebra Pattern,” Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth, edited by Naomi Oreskes. p 71. Westview Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
7. Morley, Lawrence (2001). “The Zebra Pattern,” Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth, edited by Naomi Oreskes. p 84. Westview Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.