A complex, rich biography of a groundbreaking geologist who discovered “a rift valley running down the center of the Atlantic,” essentially transforming 20th-century geophysics despite “mid-century American gender bias” and scientific rivalries.
In her debut, Felt (Writing/Pittsburgh Univ.) ably enriches each of the biographical, historical and scientific threads she pursues. From the 1950s through the ’70s, Marie Tharp (1920–2006) mapped the entire ocean floor, an accomplishment honored by the Library of Congress in 1997, when she was named “one of the four greatest cartographers” of the 20th century. Trained in geology and mathematics, Tharp joined a team headed by Dr. Maurice Ewing at Columbia's Lamont Geological Laboratory. They were searching for a relationship between the continental shelf and seismological events, and Tharp’s task was to collect data from ocean-bottom sounding and draft maps that they overlaid with data on earthquake activity. Tharp partnered with another member of the team, seismologist Bruce Heezen (who became her longtime lover), and they were able to correlate her maps with earthquake epicenters. This contributed to the discovery of the massive rift running through all the world's oceans and a revival of interest in continental-drift theory, which led to our modern understanding of plate tectonics. Although the duo’s work was originally dismissed by Ewing, who targeted Tharp in particular, critics were silenced by evidence revealed in a Jacques Cousteau film. The author presents Tharp's career through the prism of a woman's struggle for recognition in a traditionally male scientific field. After Heezen's tragic early death, Tharp collected and organized the record of their joint scientific accomplishments, from which Felt draws.
A well-researched, engaging account of an important scientific discovery that should also find a place on women’s-studies shelves.