Marie Tharp posed next to a physiographic diagram of the North Atlantic Ocean, late 1950s.
Marie Tharp posed next to a physiographic diagram of the North Atlantic Ocean, late 1950s.

Credit: Courtesy of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

(WOMENSENEWS)–It was very early on New Year’s Day 2007, and I discovered cartographer Marie Tharp in the New York Times Magazine, part of the 2006 roundup of all the notable people who had died throughout the past year. Some were famous; some were not. The photograph on the cover showed names constructed out of neon tubes and the letters spelling out the words “Marie Tharp” came just after the ones that spelled out “Betty Friedan.”

Inside the magazine were articles about all these people, short biographical pieces whose intent was unclear. Tharp, the header of the article about her said, was a “contrary map maker.” In the article’s first line the author wrote that Tharp had red hair and cut a fine figure. In its second line I learned that she had studied English and music before going to graduate school for geology. In the second paragraph I learned that she and her scientific partner, an Iowan named Bruce Heezen, “rewrote 20th century geophysics.” It was not until the next paragraph that I learned what exactly she had done: from the 1950s to the 1970s she mapped the entire ocean floor and discovered a rift valley that circled the globe.

When I first read that article about Tharp in the Times I was attracted to certain elements of the story, to the use of words such as “imagine,” “intuit” and “creativity.” I loved the idea of a map having been produced as a “supreme act of rigorous creativity,” tried to imagine her 30-year-long “Hamlet-like” relationship with the “hulking” Heezen.

The article also said that Tharp’s discovery of a rift valley running down the center of the Atlantic essentially proved the theory of continental drift (which said that the Earth’s surface was made up of moving plates), but when I first read the article what stood out to me was that no one believed her–when she initially discovered what came to be called the Mid-Oceanic Rift, her claims were dismissed as “girl talk.” I thought I was reading a classic–the story of an outcast eccentric, a female scientist whose reputation had been the victim of mid-century American gender bias. I was wrong, but also right: the whole story, the true story, was much more complicated.

Google Earth Oversight

After I first read about Tharp and had looked at images of her maps from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, I turned to Google Earth for a modern glimpse of the ocean floor. I was disappointed; the oceans fill almost three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, but the images illustrating them just showed vast swaths of woolly cobalt. The emptiness of the oceans was infuriating–average people like me couldn’t explore the ocean floor. Tharp’s maps had been around for decades, and I knew that other scientists must have been collecting information since then–where had all that data gone?

And then, on Feb. 2, 2009, the oceans got their due. In the version of Google Earth released that day, you could engage in what Google’s publicity called “a plunge into the oceans of the world” to explore shipwrecks, watch clips of old Jacques Cousteau footage and learn about marine protected areas; most important to me, though, was a new feature that allowed users to see Tharp’s World Ocean Floor Panorama wrapped around the globe. It’s now possible to look at the Earth as she envisioned it: the features of the ocean floor painted in all different shades of blue (sky, suede, corn and midnight); the continents’ rich ripe yellows and peaches and oranges; bruised brick reds where mountains burst through the skin of the plains–the whole map much more beautiful than the muddy shades of Google Earth’s terrestrial satellite images.

Overlooked Importance

There’s one other curious thing about Tharp’s work: its importance, much like the oceans in general, gets little attention. Without Tharp’s first map of the ocean floor, the scientists who developed the first theoretical models of plate tectonics would have had nothing to look at–and, therefore, no theories to develop. Yet there are no books devoted to Tharp, only a handful of articles. Histories of that period in geology usually refer to her only in a single sentence or in a caption for one of her maps.

By the time I discovered her in the Times on New Year’s Day 2007, she’d been allowed to settle into obscurity. Even in that article, the sensational aspects of her life drowned out the scientific value of her work. For all my own limitations, I told myself as I ran into all sorts of walls during the years I spent working on this project, if I could restore the detail to Tharp’s life, I could restore the importance of her work, so that there’d be more to her than the sensational or eccentric, more than just the highs and lows.

Hali Felt is the author of “Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor.” She currently resides in Pittsburgh where she teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh.

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