She collected information from the orbiting machines, focusing on information that helped to determine their exact location as they transmitted from around the world. Data was entered into large scale “super computers” that filled entire rooms, and she worked on computer software that processed geoid heights, or precise surface elevations.
The process that led to GPS is too scientific for a newspaper story, but Gladys West would say it took a lot of work—equations checked and double-checked, along with lots of data collection and analysis. Although she might not have grasped its future usage, she was pleased by the company she kept.
If that reminds you a bit of Hidden Figures, it’s not just you. And if reading this piece makes you want to read about the process that led to GPS, even if it’s too scientific for a newspaper story, it’s not just you either. [Blavity]
Another profile of ocean cartographer Marie Tharp, this time from Smithsonian.com’s Erin Blakemore. As Blakemore recounts, Tharp crunched and mapped the sonar sounding data collected by her collaborator, Bruce Heezen; her calculations revealed a huge valley in the middle of a ridge in the North Atlantic seafloor.
“When I showed what I found to Bruce,” she recalled, “he groaned and said ‘It cannot be. It looks too much like continental drift.’ … Bruce initially dismissed my interpretation of the profiles as ‘girl talk’.” It took almost a year for Heezen to believe her, despite a growing amount of evidence and her meticulous checking and re-checking of her work. He only changed his mind when evidence of earthquakes beneath the rift valley she had found was discovered—and when it became clear that the rift extended up and down the entire Atlantic. Today, it is considered Earth’s largest physical feature.
When Heezen—who published the work and took credit for it—announced his findings in 1956, it was no less than a seismic event in geology. But Tharp, like many other women scientists of her day, was shunted to the background.
I really ought to get to Hali Felt’s 2012 biography of Tharp, Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor, at some point. Amazon (Kindle), iBooks.
A review in Maclean’s brought to my attention a book that came out two months ago: Hali Felt’s Soundings, a biography of Marie Tharp (1920-2006), who with her partner, Bruce Heezen, created the first global map of the ocean floor, discovered the Mid-Atlantic Ridge’s rift valley, and helped provide the evidence for plate tectonics. She’s a major figure in cartography and among women in science, so I thought I should bring this book to your attention, too. Another one to add to the to-read pile.