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Published January 1, 1989 | public
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Theory of the Earth


The maturing of the Earth sciences has led to a fragmentation into subdisciplines which speak imperfectly to one another. Some of these subdisciplines are field geology, petrology, mineralogy, geochemistry, geodesy and seismology, and these in turn are split into even finer units. The science has also expanded to include the planets and even the cosmos. The practitioners in each of these fields tend to view the Earth in a completely different way. Discoveries in one field diffuse only slowly into the consciousness of a specialist in another. In spite of the fact that there is only one Earth, there are probably more Theories of the Earth than there are of astronomy, particle physics or cell biology where there are uncountable samples of each object. Even where there is cross-talk among disciplines, it is usually as noisy as static. Too often, one discipline's unproven assumptions or dogmas are treated as firm boundary conditions for a theoretician in a slightly overlapping area. The data of each subdiscipline are usually consistent with a range of hypotheses. The possibilities can be narrowed considerably as more and more diverse data are brought to bear on a particular problem. The questions of origin, composition and evolution of the Earth require input from astronomy, cosmochemistry, meteoritics, planetology, geology, petrology, mineralogy, crystallography, materials science and seismology, at a minimum. To a student of the Earth, these are artificial divisions, however necessary they are to make progress on a given front. In Theory of the Earth I attempt to assemble the bits and pieces from a variety of disciplines which are relevant to an understanding of the Earth. Rocks and magmas are our most direct source of information about the interior, but they are biased toward the properties of the crust and shallow mantle. Seismology is our best source of information about the deep interior; however, the interpretation of seismic data for purposes other than purely structural requires input from solid-state physics and experimental petrology. Although this is not a book about seismology, it uses seismology in a variety of ways. The "Theory of the Earth" developed here differs in many respects from conventional views. Petrologists' models for the Earth's interior usually focus on the composition of mantle samples contained in basalts and kimberlites. The simplest hypothesis based on these samples is that the observed basalts and peridotites bear a complementary relation to one another, that peridotites are the source of basalts or the residue after their removal, and that the whole mantle is identical in composition to the inferred chemistry of the upper mantle and the basalt source region. The mantle is therefore homogeneous in composition, and thus all parts of the mantle eventually rise to the surface to provide basalts. Subducted slabs experience no barrier in falling through the mantle to the core-mantle boundary.

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Copyright transferred to the author September 2, 1998.


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