The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor
Henry Holt and Company, 340pp, $30
Marie Tharp was born in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1920. Her father drew soil classification maps for the USDA and her mother was a language teacher. It was understood she would go to college. But in 1940, having earned a BA in English and music, along with four minors it was hard to imagine how much more education she would seek and what she might possibly accomplish with what she learned. After all, she was a woman. It was not a good time for women, especially if they were well educated, more especially in the “hard sciences”.
She went on to earn an MA in geology and while she was working for Standard Oil, took another degree in mathematics. (Her advisor suggested accounting to “help her with her taxes”. She took spherical trigonometry. It is 1948, an even worse job market for educated woman with so many men recently home from the war. She moved to New York…marched into the office of the geology department at Columbia and tendered her resume. Dr. Ewing was at sea, she was told to come back in two weeks. She did and after a long explanation of her learning and job experience Ewing asked only one question…”can you draft?” (Might that possibly be an echo of another single question, my fellow female job hunters of a certain age?
She was hired as an assistant to male graduate students as a “human calculator” and to draft copies of simple maps and diagrams at the Lamont Geological Laboratory at Columbia University. In the meanwhile, Bruce Heezen, soon to be her boss “was at sea, acting as chief scientist on an expedition, even though he’d only just gotten his undergraduate degree and hadn’t yet taken a single graduate course.”
In 1950 the best knowledge of the ocean floor was a bathymetric chart. Prince Albert of Monaco founded an international organization to collect soundings from all over the world. The attitude at Lamont was that “there was plenty of room for everybody to have his own big discovery” (except women). She had become the factotum for all the men…so much so that she ran away--back home to vent to her father and brother. When she came back (notice that she was already too valuable to fire) Bruce Heezen had been “assigned to help her divide her time among the men”. Not long after that arrangement was cooked up, Heezen decided to “keep her for himself”.
As a team, they work on a map of the ocean floor, interpreting sonar pings into a continuous map. She was working away on that project when she first saw a deep rift in a range of peaks which added physical substance to the then current theory of continental drift (this idea was a precursor to the more sophisticated understanding of plate tectonics.)
The 1977 World Floor Panorama painted by Heinrich Berann based on Marie and Bruce's work.
However, the pictures can’t lie. At 1959 International Oceanographic Congress Bruce presents an “outrageous hypothesis”. In order to explain the rift valley he posited that the earth was expanding. Cousteau is also at the conference and he confirms the theory with his film of the rift. The scientists are so stricken they call for an encore; the film is shown twice. Marie’s maps have been proven. At 39, she had a lot more life to live and discoveries to make but this had to have been a high point. (Heezen and Tharp refined the idea a year later. As explained in Wikipedia: “a profound consequence of seafloor spreading is that new crust was, and still is, being continually created along the oceanic ridges. So, still the question remained: how can new crust be continuously added along the oceanic ridges without increasing the size of the Earth? The crust in excess disappeared along what were called the oceanic trenches, where so-called ‘subduction’ occurred.”)
Author Hali Felt has done a nice job of conveying the triumphs and tragedies (both personal and professional) of this incredibly talented woman. She has also revealed that had discrimination not played a major role in Tharp’s professional life, we would all be more knowledgeable not just about the ocean floor but about the abundant contributions that could have been made by the “other half” of the species. This book is not just about the physical details of the ocean floor. It is also a painful and poignant social history.