Level 3 Mortlock Wing State Library of South Australia North Terrace Adelaide SA 5000
Ortelius map of the world

Lunchtime Meeting

The search for how the earth works: a scientific detective story

Frances Williams

Back in the 16th century the cartographer Abraham Ortelius noted that the coastlines on either side of the Atlantic Ocean bore a remarkable resemblance to each other. This observation was the very first clue in an amazing scientific detective story about how the earth works and why the oceans and continents are where they are.

Abraham Ortelius suggested that “the Americas were torn away from Europe and Africa by earthquakes and floods”. Ortelius’s remarkable observation became lost in the mists of time and others have since borne the credit, but it was in fact the very first clue in an amazing scientific detective story. The mystery to be solved in this story is a formidable one: “How does the earth work?”. Why are the oceans and continents where they are? Have they moved around over time, and if so how? The detectives in the story are scientists and observers from many disciplines and of many nationalities. The clues come from a myriad of sources: fossils, ancient glaciers, the ancient magnetism of rocks, the way volcanoes and earthquakes are distributed around the world, the topography of the ocean floor, and many more. As in most detective stories there are clues that were ignored, misinterpreted, led up wrong tracks or to dead ends, and others stumbled upon by accident. Gradually however they fell into place in a thrilling climax.

In this talk Frances will take you through this story and introduce some of the “detectives” along the way.

Frances Williams graduated with a BSc in Physics from the University of London, and MSc in Geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Between these periods of study she worked for two years at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, at just the time when new discoveries about the sea floor were pouring in and the ideas leading to the concept of Plate Tectonics were beginning to fall into place. After obtaining her MSc she moved to Ethiopia, where she taught geology for seven years at Addis Ababa University. Ethiopia has continued to play an important part in her life. In 2016 she published a book “Understanding Ethiopia: geology and scenery”, and between 2017 and 2020 led six geology focussed tours to the country.

For the past 25 years or so Frances has been associated with the University of Adelaide, as a Research Associate in the Luminescence Dating Laboratory and currently as an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Earth Sciences working in the Tate Museum. She is currently President of the Field Geology Club of South Australia, and in 2022 was awarded the Bruce Webb Medal by the Geological Society of Australia (SA Division) for contributions to the advance of knowledge within the earth sciences in South Australia.

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The Royal Geographical Society of South Australia Inc. Trust Funds are to support, sponsor, encourage or promote projects or other activities for scientific study of any or all aspects of geography and/or the educational applications or dissemination of the findings thereof. The funds either provide for growth in our geographical Library knowledge and information services; or are applied to more general geographical activities, awards and scholarship.

Date and Time

11 October 2023
12:00 pm

Hetzel Lecture Theatre, Institute Building SLSA, North Terrace, Adelaide

Members: $Gold coin
Non members: $5