Frederick John Vine

views updated

Frederick John Vine


English Geophysicist

In the 1960s Frederick J. Vine and his colleague Drummond Matthews (1931- ) emerged as foremost proponents of the theory of plate tectonics—the theory that the earth's crust is divided into shifting plates that include the continents embedded on their surface. Vine's research, presented in 1966, helped sway the opinions of geologists toward the idea that the ocean floor was created at the mid-ocean ridges and slowly spread apart as large individual plates.

Vine was born in Chiswick, England, a suburb of west London, to Frederick Royston Vine, an accountant, and Ivy Bryant Vine, a personal secretary. He studied natural sciences at St. John's College, Cambridge, and went on to obtain a Ph.D. in marine geophysics under the tutelage of Drummond Matthews.

In 1962, while undergoing his graduate studies at St. John's, Vine became intrigued, as many before him had, by the apparent fit between the great gulf of West Africa and the bulge of Brazil. This seemed to confirm the theory of continental drift put forth half a century earlier by Alfred Wegener (1880-1930). However, this theory had come under attack in recent years.

Also in 1962, Matthews took part in a mapping expedition aboard the H.M.S. Owen in the northwestern Indian Ocean, and noted a pattern of magnetic bands or stripes as much as 20 miles or 30 kilometers wide. Upon Matthews's return to England, he and Vine examined this data—such magnetic stripes had been found on the floors of other oceans, but not the region studied by Matthews—in light of the then-new hypothesis of sea-floor spreading put forth by Harry Hammond Hess (1906-1969).

Vine and Matthews began to examine the bands for variations in polarity, or the direction of the magnetic field, taking note of research conducted by Allan Cox and other American geologists who had shown that Earth's magnetic field reverses its polarity every hundred thousand years or so. They subsequently discovered that the polarity of the stripes varied symmetrically: for instance, if the third stripe to the west of a ridge was a wide one with a north magnetic pole near the north geographic pole, the same was true of the third stripe to the east of a ridge.

The theories of Hess, as well as those of Cox and others, had not gained wide acceptance. But Vine and Matthews, who presented their findings in the September 1963 issue of Nature, offered compelling evidence of magnetic reversals in the ocean floor.

Vine further confirmed his findings in 1965, when American geologist Brent Dalrymple told him about a previously unrecognized geomagnetic reversal that had occurred about a million years ago near Jamarillo Creek in Mexico. Shortly afterward, while visiting the Lamont Geological Observatory in New York, Vine discovered data confirming a geomagnetic reversal on the South Pacific floor at the same time as the Jamarillo event. Not only were the geomagnetic reversals real, but they were clearly linked.

At the December 1966 meeting of the Geological Society of America in San Francisco, Vine presented a paper entitled "Proof of Ocean-Floor Spreading." Thereafter sea-floor spreading, continental drift, and plate tectonics theory began to gain wide acceptance.

In 1967 Vine took a teaching and research position at Princeton University in New Jersey, but in 1970 he returned to England to work in the environmental sciences department of the University of East Anglia in Norwich. He currently serves as dean of environmental sciences for the university. He has also worked with Eldridge Moores, studying a rock formation in the Troodos Mountains of southern Cyprus that is thought to be an upthrust slice of ocean floor.

Vine married Susan McCall in 1964, and they have a son and daughter.


About this article

Frederick John Vine

Updated About content Print Article