The physical description of the plates finally came together in the late 1960s, Lithgow-Bertelloni said, when the British geophysicist Dan McKenzie and the American Jason Morgan separately proposed a quantitative framework for modeling plate tectonics on a sphere.
Other than their existence, almost everything about the plates remains in contention. For instance, what drives their lateral motion? Where do subducted plates end up—perhaps these are the blobs?—and how do they affect Earth’s interior dynamics? Why did Earth’s crust shatter into plates in the first place when no other planetary surface in the solar system did? Also completely mysterious is the two-tier architecture of oceanic and continental plates, and how oceans and continents came to ride on them—all possible prerequisites for intelligent life. Knowing more about how Earth became earthlike could help us understand how common earthlike planets are in the universe and thus how likely life is to arise.
The continents probably formed, Lithgow-Bertelloni said, as part of the early process by which gravity organized Earth’s contents into concentric layers: Iron and other metals sank to the center, forming the core, while rocky silicates stayed in the mantle. Meanwhile, low-density materials buoyed upward, forming a crust on the surface of the mantle like soup scum. Perhaps this scum accumulated in some places to form continents, while elsewhere oceans materialized.
Figuring out precisely what happened and the sequence of all of these steps is “more difficult,” Lithgow-Bertelloni said, because they predate the rock record and are “part of the melting process that happens early on in Earth’s history—very early on.”
Until recently, scientists knew of no geochemical traces from so long ago, and they thought they might never crack open the black box from which Earth’s most glorious features emerged. But the subtle anomalies in tungsten and other isotope concentrations are now providing the first glimpses of the planet’s formation and differentiation. These chemical tracers promise to yield a combination timeline-and-map of early Earth, revealing where its features came from, why, and when.
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Humankind’s understanding of early Earth took its first giant leap when Apollo astronauts brought back rocks from the moon: our tectonic-less companion whose origin was, at the time, a complete mystery.
The rocks “looked gray, very much like terrestrial rocks,” said Fouad Tera, who analyzed lunar samples at the California Institute of Technology between 1969 and 1976. But because they were from the moon, he said, they created “a feeling of euphoria” in their handlers. Some interesting features did eventually show up: “We found glass spherules—colorful, beautiful—under the microscope, green and yellow and orange and everything,” recalled Tera, now 85. The spherules probably came from fountains that gushed from volcanic vents when the moon was young. But for the most part, he said, “the moon is not really made out of a pleasing thing—just regular things.”