Paradigm shift, a term that may too often be invoked for minor or temporary changes in thought, is appropriately applied to the concepts of plate tectonics and the impact that the development of this theory had on geological thinking. In this tale that starts from the inception of plate tectonic concepts through to its current ongoing maturation, Roy Livermore brings us along on, what in many ways is, his personal journey in science that is built on the foundations of plate tectonics. As noted on the book jacket, the goal of The Tectonic Plates are Moving was to move beyond the popular clichés of “tectonic shift” and “tsunami waves” as applied to political, societal, and economic conditions and provide a historical account of this revolution in earth sciences as seen through the eyes of a practicing marine geophysicist. In this way, Livermore brings an in-depth understanding of the science, but because of his background, he explores the evolution of plate tectonic thought with a focus toward the marine side of the revolution.

To put my review into context, I read this book, also from the perspective of a practicing geophysicist (but more on the non-marine side of things), who came of age in the science of plate tectonics during the 1970s through the early 1980s, just as the concepts were starting to move into the mainstream. In addition, my research is (and has been throughout my career) focused on the role that plate tectonics plays in shaping the Earth from the deep mantle to the surface. I began to read this book, just as I was starting to teach a course on Plate Tectonics. The first several weeks of that course are focused on the history and early discoveries in plate tectonics, and why we consider it a true paradigm shift. This timing allowed me to cross-reference my teaching with the contents of this book.

So, through those eyes, I embarked on this journey. Although informal in its style, this book (at ∼450 pages) is not light reading. Its selection of topics explored is exhaustive, but in many ways, it is also idiosyncratic. As might be expected, much of the focus is related to marine geophysics and discoveries made in that realm. This is the domain of expertise by the author. Although I would concur that in the initial stages of the development of the theory, much of the evidence that helped define processes, and sway the opinions of the previously doubting geophysics community came from the oceans, I think the lack of discussion of the on-land discoveries that paralleled the marine results may lead many readers to under-appreciate how profoundly plate tectonics also changed the thinking of land-based geologists, earthquake seismologists, paleontologists, and planetary scientists.

Overall, I found the book to be interesting. I learned things about aspects of plate tectonics history I wasn't familiar with, and some gaps in my memories of the sequence of events were filled. So, I do recommend this read to colleagues with some background in the geosciences and in particular in topics related to plate tectonics. This book puts a human face on many of the discoveries, touches on the resistance (sometimes bordering on hostile) to many of the new (and seen by some as radical) ideas, and nicely makes its point that revolutions can occur stealthily, propelled forward by diverse groups not working toward a single goal but rather each working to better reconcile their data with models of how Earth acts.

I am less certain about how broadly to recommend this book. For those without a reasonable background in many of the topics covered (there are many, many topics covered), I think that they might find themselves lost and at sea (pun intended) in following the story as it jumps around. This book is informal in its style and chats with readers rather than lecturing to them. I like this in general, but I think that in ways it goes too far. Almost all the scientists profiled, even going back to the very early participants during the initial decades of the 20th century, are referred to using their first names. Perhaps Livermore was a close friend or colleague with many of them, but to have the discoveries of Professors Wadati, Vening Meinesz, and Barrell (who wrote his seminal work between 1905 and 1920) discussed as being by Kiyoo, Felix, and Joseph, respectively, was both confusing and struck be as a bit inappropriately informal and out of context. Although I would agree that our community is very informal and relatively non-hierarchical, this forced familiarity irked me throughout my reading.

I also feel that there was a bit too much extraneous editorializing throughout this book. Certainly, as this book is as much a memoir as it is a history, there is ample room for the author to invoke his thoughts and opinions as they relate to the topic at hand. But I found it off-putting to have a chapter start with “Despite the dumbing-down of education in recent years…,” or when referring to Arthur Holmes (a major player in geologic thought in the 1920s–1930s, “…he later took a disastrous job with an oil company in Burma, following which he became, like many oil industry geologists before and since, unemployed…” Such out-of-place statements really detract from the topics and points that are at the core of this book. Such ‘opinions’ are sprinkled throughout this book, and as I read along, I found myself becoming increasingly confused as to why they were even included.

This book is primarily text; there are a few figures (essentially all from the original published literature, which I think is good) interspersed that help the reader to envision what is being described. I think that the utility of the figures would have been greatly enhanced if those that were originally published in color were reproduced here similarly. Being familiar with the original work, I found the black and white versions reproduced here to be much less effective.

The Tectonic Plates are Moving! is overall an intriguing, if idiosyncratic, look into the plate tectonic revolution in the earth sciences. Livermore presents what is essentially his personal journey through this fundamental change in geologic thinking. It succeeds in bringing together a wide range of interlocking data, processes, and events, providing a framework to view the changes in how we think about our planet. I think that it is less successful in bringing people with little familiarity in the topics of plate tectonics to the level of understanding desired by the author. It is an interesting read for those who work in the myriad disciplines affected by plate tectonic processes. I think that it is useful and important for current and future generations of earth scientists to have an understanding of the roots of their science; this book may be one pathway that our students could reach that goal.

Kevin P. Furlong is a professor of Geosciences at the Pennsylvania State University. He received his Ph.D. degree in Geophysics at the University of Utah. His expertise is in plate tectonics, earthquake seismology, thermal geophysics, and natural hazards. He is a Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Geological Society of America and has been recognized in Penn State for both his research and teaching contributions, most recently the Eisenhower Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest University award for teaching in Penn State.

His research has focused on plate boundary earthquakes and tectonics, and his expertise was put to the test during a sabbatical in New Zealand in 2010–2011. He experienced much of the devastating earthquake sequence that severely damaged Christchurch, NZ, and he became a major spokesperson providing information on the causes and consequences of the ongoing seismic events through numerous public lectures and television and newspaper reports and as a member of an advising group to the NZ Prime Minister and his science advisor. Over the past decade, Furlong's research has focused on the major plate boundary earthquakes along subduction zones.