Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor by Hali Felt (Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2012)
For almost 70 years we have seen the large maps and globes showing the topography of the world’s oceans and continents, and taken them for granted. The map of the world’s land topography was a hard-won accomplishment made by generations of surveyors and cartographers, gradually improved and refined during the golden ages of exploration in the 1700s and 1800s. But before 1957, over 70% of the earth’s surface was simply unknown. Maps of the world’s oceans showed a few islands on a patch of solid blue, and not much else. Whatever was beneath the ocean’s surface was terra incognita. For the longest time, people thought that trilobites still roamed the seafloor, or that the entire seafloor was a flat featureless plain. Surprisingly, virtually all of the undersea world we now take for granted was mapped by one person! Even more remarkably, that person was a woman in an age where women had few opportunities in science. And sadly, despite the fact that she mapped more of our planet’s surface than any other person in history, her name is virtually unknown except to a few scientists. Fortunately, with the May 4 episode of “Cosmos” that just aired, her name is getting a bit more publicity.
Her name was Marie Tharp, and I was fortunate to meet her and her longtime scientific and romantic partner Bruce Heezen (pronounced HAY-zen) when I was still a graduate student at Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory in the late 1970s. (Sadly, “Cosmos” mispronounced Heezen they way most people mispronounce it). Writer Hali Felt has produced a very enjoyable biography of this groundbreaking but underappreciated giant in the sciences of geology and geography. She was born in Ypsilanti, Michigan, on July 30, 1920, but she grew up in many different states, and followed a nearly rootless existence, because her father William made soil classification maps for many different state surveys. Always the new kid in town, she seldom made friends in school, but she was very bright and hardworking and did very well in her studies. As she got older, she spent a lot of time riding around with her father helping him in his work, so she learned about geology and natural history and mapping and surveying at a young age. She graduated from Ohio University in 1943 with majors in English and music and four minors. Then she got a master’s in geology at the University of Michigan at time when few women were allowed in geology, but wartime shortages of male students needed for the oil industry opened the door for her. For a while she worked at Stanolind Oil in Tulsa, Oklahoma, earning another degree in Mathematics at the University of Tulsa as she worked. Continue reading…comments (3)