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This paper was part of the 2012-2013 Penn Humanities Forum on Peripheries. Find out more at


Canadian geophysicist John Tuzo Wilson's transform fault concept was instrumental in unifying the various strands of evidence that together make up plate tectonic theory. Outside of his scientific research, Wilson was a tireless science administrator and promoter of international scientific cooperation. To that end, he travelled to China twice, once in 1958 as part of the International Geophysical Year and once again in 1971. Coming from a rare non-communist westerner in China both before and after the Cultural Revolution, Wilson's travels constitute valuable temporal and spatial cross-sections of China as that nation struggled to define itself in relation to its past, to the Soviet Union which inspired its politics, and to the West through Wilson's new science of plate tectonics. In so constructing these cross-sections, Wilson acts as a kind of cartographer of science, mapping the tectonic shifts during the Cold War, which revolutionized his understanding of the earth, of politics, and of the discipline of geophysics.



Date Posted: 17 November 2016