The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor

by Hali Felt

Henry Holt, 2012. ISBN 978-0-805-09215-8.
Reviewed by Judy King
Posted on 06/06/2012
Review of the Month, June 2012

Nonfiction: Science

Like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Soundings is the story of an important woman overlooked by history. Who among us hasn't seen images in books, on television, on the Internet, that show what the ocean floor would look like if we weren't looking through thousands of feet of water? Marie Tharp made the first of those images. She didn't just use her imagination, either. With a Master's Degree in Geology, a Bachelor's Degree in Mathematics, and some drafting classes thrown in for good measure, Tharp had the ideal skill set needed to graphically interpret data from soundings of the ocean floor. Images she constructed based on fathograms, or echo soundings—the output of the instruments used to measure ocean depths—eventually led to the discovery of an earth feature that would shake the foundations of the geological sciences.

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge and its counterparts in the Pacific and Indian Oceans would come to represent the smoking gun in the search for a mechanism to support the theory of continental drift. At the time, no one was looking for the mechanism to support the theory, because the theory was considered unsupportable. In fact, as author Hali Felt points out, "the words 'continental drift' were fighting words."

But in 1952, when Marie Tharp, working with Bruce Heezen at the Lamont Geological Observatory, first discovered that the data she was interpreting suggested a rift in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean similar to the one in East Africa, she and Heezen both understood the implications. A rift is a tear in the earth's surface where material rises to the surface and pushes outward, spreading the landscape. A rift in the middle of the Atlantic would mean that the theory of continental drift might be a reality. When Tharp first showed Heezen what she had found, he had her do the whole thing over again. She got the same results. Eventually she convinced him that the ridge was really there.

The story of how they struggled and finally convinced the rest of the geological community of the significance of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is less remarkable than the fact that a woman was doing a job like that at that time in the first place. When Marie Tharp grew up (she was born in 1920), career choices for women amounted to about a handful: teacher, nurse, secretary, housewife. She chose differently. She also managed to be in the right place at the right time, to end up working for Maurice "Doc" Ewing, the scientist who was systematically sounding the floor of the northern Atlantic Ocean after the end of WWII.

Hali Felt has done an outstanding job bringing Marie Tharp to life as an eccentric and colorful character. She also shows both the light and dark sides of the story of Tharp's work mapping the ocean floor. Just because she got the job at the lab, and had the good fortune to form a working partnership with someone who could appreciate her abilities and help get her work out to the wider world, doesn't mean that Tharp didn't suffer a lot of censure and prejudice because she was a woman. Felt writes:

Her gender was the reason she'd been cast as a research assistant when she first appeared at Lamont; it was why Doc turned her over to Bruce back in 1952 when she'd tried to quit her job; it was why all of the work she'd subsequently done had to carry his name and why, of the two of them, Bruce was always the one asked to deliver presentations of their work.

This is much more than a dry re-telling of how dedicated scientists followed the evidence and changed our thinking about the earth. It's a fascinating human story that reads better than some fiction. The relationship between Tharp and Heezen went far beyond "friend and colleague," but how far, exactly? No one knows. No one stated for a fact that the two were or were not lovers. Considering the times they lived in, it's not surprising they kept the details of their personal relationship secret, but they behaved publicly like a lot of married couples do. They had frequent loud arguments. Tharp was known to zing the occasional stapler or paperweight past Hezeen's head. When they collaborated with the artist who turned their diagrams into maps for National Geographic, they shared a bedroom (with twin beds) in his home.

When Hezeen died in 1977, Tharp received condolence cards and messages from around the world, as would a grieving widow. She cut down his shirts and wore them, cut up his trousers and made them into skirts to wear. (No one could make this stuff up.)

If you've studied earth sciences to any extent, you probably know the name Alfred Wegner. He is credited with first describing continental drift, although he died before anyone began to take the idea seriously. Other names are associated with the development of the working theory of continental drift, and the process called sea-floor spreading, among them, Doc Ewing.

But you have to hunt to find mention of Marie Tharp. I'm grateful to Hali Felt for telling this story so well. When I was in school, earth science classes always ran a close second behind my favorite life sciences, and I have always been curious about the history of how continental drift went from the realm of "woo-woo" science to mainstream. I'm so glad a woman was involved.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Hali Felt teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa and has completed residencies at the MacDowell Colony, the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, and Portland Writers in the Schools. In the past, she has reported for the Columbia Journalism Review and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. She currently lives in Pittsburgh.

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