Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor

Posted by nliakos on March 24, 2015

by Hali Felt (Henry Holt & Co. 2012; ISBN 987-0-8050-9215-8)

This was a serendipitous discovery I made when I was cruising along the Biography shelf in the library and just happened to notice this book, which has been on my To Read list ever since it was published. It did not disappoint!

Marie Tharp was instrumental in the acceptance of plate tectonics (then known as continental drift and disparaged by most of the world’s geologists). Tharp’s groundbreaking map of the Atlantic seafloor, based on soundings taken from ships crossing the ocean, clearly showed a ridge splitting the Mid-ocean Ridge (mountain range). Felt writes, She spent a lot of time looking closely at the ridge whose presence she’d confirmed, a wide bump where the ocean floor gained elevation. It was apparent on all six of the profiles, which meant that it was a range, not just one isolated mountain. And then something happened. ‘As I looked further at the detail, and tried to unravel it,’ she said, ‘I noticed that in each profile there was a deep notch near the crest of the ridge.’ A deep notch, a rift. This was something new. She kept studying it, checking the sounding records over and over again to make sure she hadn’t mis-plotted a depth. . . . They (Marie and her partner Bruce Heezen) both know that the existence of such a rift means continental drift. This was in 1952, when to espouse Alfred Wegener’s hypothesis that the earth’s crust was made up of giant pieces or plates that moved around on the earth’s surface was professional suicide. But what Marie saw could not be denied, and geology was changed by what she had found and brought to light with her map.

Still, for her entire career, Marie struggled against gender bias. She was marginalized and ignored by most of the people that she worked with and for. The fact that she never got her Ph.D. probably didn’t help, either. It is painful to read about how she struggled to get her work recognized by the scientific establishment. And when Bruce Heezen died unexpectedly at age 53, she lost not only a life partner but a longtime professional ally. Nevertheless, she soldiered on for about 30 years and managed to accomplish a great deal.

Marie Tharpe was unique. She made a remarkable achievement that has had enormous impact on both geology and cartography , and she did it against great odds. She was incredibly smart, talented, and stubborn. Like author Hali Felt, who is a living presence in the book and who at the end declares herself one of the “Tharpophiles”, I am very glad to know Marie’s extraordinary story. And if you are reading this post, you know it, too.

 

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