526: Soundings by Hali Felt

by Gerard

526.092: Felt, Hali. Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor. New York: Henry Holt, 2012. 302 pp. ISBN 978-0-8050-9215-8.

Dewey Construction:

  • 500: Natural Science
  • 520: Astronomy and allied sciences
  • 526: Mathematical geography
  • +092: Biography

While reading the 2006 “year in memoriam” pages, author Hali Felt came across a curious name. The woman in the section had devoted her entire adult life to converting oceanographic soundings into a map of the floor of the Atlantic. When she did this, a curious formation appeared—the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It’s not a big deal now, but in the 1950s this led to the realization that continental drift was a more viable theory that previously considered. Her insights into mathematical geography and geology led to a reversal of years of thought. And no one really knew her name—until now. She was Marie Tharp.

Tharp was born in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1920 and lived a migratory existence until college. Her father was a soil scientist that was sent all over the Midwest by the Department of the Agriculture, and the family moved around a lot. Once she went to college, she developed an unbridled appetite for scientific knowledge, but had to struggle to stay focused. Eventually, she worked her way into a geology master’s degree and went to work for Stanford Oil.

Not feeling entirely satisfied, she headed off for New York and became a drafter at the Lamont Geological Observatory at Columbia University. There she met Bruce Heezen, who allowed her a bit more freedom to work on more exciting projects. One day, he handed her dozens of cylinders with data on the depth of the ocean taken on various trips across the Atlantic and asked her to compile all the data. Her first instinct was to make a physiographic map. Upon conversion, she noticed that the Atlantic Ocean had a massive ridge running through its middle. Almost everybody thought this had to be a mistake. A ridge of this size could only be formed by continental drift, a theory that was then believed to be a bunch of hokum. After she redid her maps and people began to understand the magnitude of her discovery, it completely remade the science of geology.

The most amazing part of this book is the fact that almost no one has ever heard of Marie Tharp. Her partner Heezen is usually the one in the spotlight (which she never wanted for herself anyway). Hali Felt integrates a great deal of personal material and recorded interviews to reconstruct Tharp’s life. The only problem with this is that for many areas of Marie’s life, there aren’t a whole lot of records. In these gaps, Felt tries to fill them with romantic imaginings of Tharp’s personal life and beliefs. There are many “conversations” that probably never happened, and these become major distractions. All in all, I always enjoy finding books about history’s lesser-known personalities and this one did not fail in its mission.

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