Her maps of the ocean floor have been called "one of the most remarkable achievements in modern cartography", yet no one knows her name.
Soundings is the story of the enigmatic, unknown woman behind one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. Before Marie Tharp, geologist and gifted draftsperson, the whole world, including most of the scientific community, thought the ocean floor was a vast expanse of nothingness. In 1948, at age 28, Marie walked into the newly formed geophysical lab at Columbia University and practically demanded a job. The scientists at the lab were all male; the women who worked there were relegated to secretary or assistant. Through sheer willpower and obstinacy, Marie was given the job of interpreting the soundings (records of sonar pings measuring the ocean's depths) brought back from the ocean-going expeditions of her male colleagues. The marriage of artistry and science behind her analysis of this dry data gave birth to a major work: the first comprehensive map of the ocean floor, which laid the groundwork for proving the then-controversial theory of continental drift.
When combined, Marie's scientific knowledge, her eye for detail and her skill as an artist revealed not a vast empty plane, but an entire world of mountains and volcanoes, ridges and rifts, and a gateway to the past that allowed scientists the means to imagine how the continents and the oceans had been created over time.
Just as Marie dedicated more than twenty years of her professional life to what became the Lamont Geological Observatory, engaged in the task of mapping every ocean on Earth, she dedicated her personal life to her great friendship with her co-worker, Bruce Heezen. Partners in work and in many ways, partners in life, Marie and Bruce were devoted to one another as they rose to greater and greater prominence in the scientific community, only to be envied and finally dismissed by their beloved institute. They went on together, refining and perfecting their work and contributing not only to humanity's vision of the ocean floor, but to the way subsequent generations would view the Earth as a whole.
With an imagination as intuitive as Marie's, brilliant young writer Hali Felt brings to vivid life the story of the pioneering scientist whose work became the basis for the work of others scientists for generations to come.
In 1952, geologist Maria Tharp started a scientific revolution that would change our ideas about how continents are created yet 60 years later hardly anyone remembers her name. Armed with only sketches of Tharp's early life, Felt's biography reimagines her progression from a nomadic childhood through scientific breakthroughs with a vivid, poetic touch, revealing an idiosyncratic and determined woman whose "vigorous creativity" advanced everyone's career but her own. Too well-educated for secretarial work, but denied the opportunity to do fieldwork because of her gender, Tharp ended up drafting maps and crunching numbers at Columbia University's Lamont Geological Observatory. There she met Bruce Heezen the man who would become her metaphysical and professional complement who was studying the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an undersea mountain range. Tharp's maps, drawn from Heezen's data, revealed an enormous rift valley along the ridge where earthquakes shook the rock. This supported the then-controversial theory of continental drift, but Heezen's professional caution kept things low-key for years until the most diehard traditionalists accepted the growing evidence. With Tharp's late years marked by solitude and obscurity, Felt, an Iowa M.F.A. now teaching writing at the University of Pittsburgh, must tease from mountains of documents, charts, and maps "the emotional blanks that are left between the ephemera."