A new article on the life and career of Marie Tharp, written by our friend Betsy Mason, was published by Science News earlier this month. Plenty has been written about Tharp, whose work mapping the ocean floor helped provide the evidence for continental drift: numerous articles, a 2012 biography, two books for children just last year. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still people who still haven’t heard of her, and should.
July 30 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of pioneering ocean cartographer Marie Tharp, whose seafloor maps provided evidence of continental drift. Columbia University’s Earth Institute is marking the event with blog posts, interviews, workshops and other social media and multimedia activity. See, for example, this overview of her legacy by Marie Denoia Aronsohn and a reprint of Tharp’s own piece, “Connect the Dots: Mapping the Seafloor and Discovering the Mid-ocean Ridge.”
The anniversary probably explains why two books about Tharp, aimed at children, are coming out this year:
Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean’s Biggest Secret
by Jess Keating
Tundra Books, 30 Jun 2020
Amazon (Canada, UK) | Apple Books | Bookshop
by Josie James
Henry Holt, 22 Sep 2020
Amazon (Canada, UK) | Apple Books
Add those to Robert Burleigh’s Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor (2016), also aimed at young readers, and Hali Felt’s 2012 biography of Tharp (for adults), Soundings, which I review here.
Older posts about Marie Tharp can be found here.
Update, July 30: Suzanne O’Connell at The Conversation: “As a geoscientist, I believe Tharp should be as famous as Jane Goodall or Neil Armstrong. Here’s why.”
I’ve been meaning to read Soundings, Hali Felt’s biography of Marie Tharp, since it came out in 2012. Since then I’ve seen a flurry of articles, interviews, videos and other tributes concerning Tharp, whose reputation, which grew during her lifetime, continues to grow in the 12 years since her death in 2006 at the age of 86.
The bare bones of Tharp’s story are therefore fairly well known: while mapping the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, she discovered the presence of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge—and, more specifically, its rift valley, providing tangible evidence of continental drift. Because continental drift was at that point considered to be a crackpot theory, it took some doing for Tharp’s discovery to be accepted; and when it was her contributions were to some extent minimized.
While Felt’s book is positioned as a biography, its strength is in the details of that pivotal discovery: how and where it was made, and by whom, and in what context. Tharp’s work was not done in a vacuum, and how and why she was where she was is important. Felt sets the stage for us: not only does she take us through Tharp’s early childhood and rather variegated education and her arrival in 1948 at the Lamont Observatory, she gives us a short history of that Observatory, of the theory of continental drift, of her colleagues—notably her lifelong collaborator (and possibly life partner) Bruce Heezen and Observatory director (and sometime antagonist) Maurice Ewing. More than anything else, Soundings provides context for Tharp’s discovery: by the time we’re done, we know how important it was, and why. We’ve been well briefed.
Felt is less successful in building a portrait of Tharp herself. Some areas of her non-work life—her childhood, family and college education, for example—are extremely well covered, but other areas have considerable gaps, particularly those involving her personal life. The nature of Tharp’s relationship with Heezen is only hinted at, as is an early, unsuccessful marriage to someone else. Her later life, supported by a motley gang of eccentrics called Tharpophiles, is also incompletely covered. The elisions, however unintended, are frustrating. I suspect the author was a prisoner of her source material, which in places she follows very closely; I would have liked it if more had been done to fill in the gaps.
Soundings was published in hardcover by Henry Holt in 2012. It’s available in paperback and ebook from Picador.
On the WMS Facebook group, Bert Johnson had this to say about this latest profile: “Hers is a standout story, but I wish some of these journalists who keep running these would spend some time and effort discussing some of the other women—known and unknown—who made contributions and helped open the doors of cartography to women.”
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.
The Smithsonian’s Ocean Blog has a profile of ocean cartographer Marie Tharp, whose discovery of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge’s rift valley provided hard evidence for the theory of plate tectonics.
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.