Marie Tharp, the geologist and cartographer who drew the first detailed maps of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, at work at her desk at Columbia University circa 1959. Tharp is the subject of Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor, a novelistic new biography by Hali Felt.
One of my prides and joys when I was a kid was my subscription to National Geographic. I cherished each issue and kept them all neatly stacked on my bookshelf and probably took greater care of them than I did my Hardy Boys and Alistair MacLeans. But sometime in high school, my subscription ran out and I didn’t bother to renew. The Secret of the Old Mill and The Guns of Navarone made way on the shelves for other, “grown up” books and with them went the magazines. I wouldn’t say I outgrew National Geographic, the way I’d outgrown the Hardys and MacLean’s boys’ own adventures. How can you outgrow the best magazine in the world? But whatever it was inside me that made each new issue so wonderful and exciting when I was ten and eleven wasn’t there when I hit fourteen and fifteen. The books I packed into boxes to be stored in the attic. I don’t remember what happened to the magazines. I can’t imagine I just threw them out, but I must have or maybe my brothers did when they took over my room when I went away to college. It was many visits home before I noticed they were gone, though, and when I did, I wasn’t too cut up about it.
But I’d have been mad if the maps had gone with them.
More than I loved the magazines themselves I loved the maps inserted into many of the issues. A few I tacked to the wall. Most I kept neatly and obsessively folded and stored away until I needed to study them, which I did, again and again, until it seemed I had the whole world memorized, continent by continent, nation by nation, city by city. It wasn’t that I dreamed of visiting any of the places on those maps. I think I took it for granted that one day I would, the way I took it for granted I would get my driver’s license and play centerfield for the Mets. But when I pored over those maps I felt that I didn’t need to travel there, because I already was there, wherever the there was that I was looking at. And I wasn’t traveling. I was exploring. I don’t know how much I still have memorized. I wouldn’t want to test my geographic knowledge on Jeopardy. But I’m pretty sure that if you dropped me any place on earth and said, Find your way to such and such a city, this or that river, those mountains, these plains, this lake, that desert, that valley, that forest, I’d know right away which direction to turn and have a good idea of how much walking I had ahead of me.
They’re still there, those maps, in my parents’ house in a folder in the bottom drawer of my old desk and next visit I’m going to dig them out to see if I’m remembering right, that one of the maps is a map of the Indian Ocean floor. It was beautiful. I can still picture it, even without having read the description provided by National Geographic in an accompanying article that author Hali Felt quotes in her engaging, informative, and stylish new biography Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor :
"Color…gives depth to the map: light green for shallow seas and continental shelves; medium blue for sediment covered plateaus and hills of the mid-depths;dark violet-gray for the abyssal plains; darker still for the great trenches. Towering undersea mountains and plunging slopes of this waterless ocean are highlighted as if at sunrise."
Sounds like a work of art. It was a work of art. Literally. In fact it’s almost inaccurate to call it a map. It’s a painting…of a map.
The painter was Heinrich Berann, an Austrian who preferred to do “serious paintings in the style of Leonardo Da Vinci” but made his daily bread painting Alpine panoramas for tourist traps. His experience painting panoramas and mountains got him a gig with National Geographic doing a panorama of the Himalayas and that led to his being contracted to paint the map of the Indian Ocean. But I wonder if he shared an analytic and scientific bent with his hero Da Vinci and if it was that that made him the right artist for the job:
After getting his detailed drawing approved...Berann began the final version. He sketched basic landforms onto thick paper using pencil, filling in patches from top to bottom. He used..a multimedia approach, employing "air brush and frisket, casein-based paints and oil-based paints in an assorted sequence," working through a hole cut in a sheet of tracing paper that projected the rest of the painting. A light wash of paint went down first, basic shapes filled by watery colors. Then Bernann tackled the features' textures, consulting the physiographic diagram and, if necessary, collecting details in rawer form...The result, the National Geographic article says...is "a remarkable map painting" that "combines scientific discoveries and an artist's skills."
The scientific discoveries that combined with Bernann’s artist’s skills were made by Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen, whose partnership, professional and romantic---although peculiarly, eccentrically, and possibly purely Platonically romantic---began in the 1950s at Columbia University where Heezen was finishing up his Ph.D. and Tharp was working as a research assistant and lasted until Heezen died of a heart attack while on a research expedition aboard a submarine in 1977. Heezen was an oceanographer. Tharp, the remarkable woman of Felt’s subtitle and the focus of the book, was a geologist by training and a cartographer by happy accident, and it was as a mapmaker she made her reputation, creating the first map of the ocean floor.
No one had mapped it before Tharp because no one had been down there. Not all the way down. For a long time no one was sure there was anything down there to map. For all anyone knew the ocean floor was a drowned desert, flat and featureless, the monotony relieved only by shipwrecks and the bones of whales. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge was discovered in 1872 by scientists looking for a path to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Its enormity had only begun to be charted in 1925. When Tharp and Heezen set to work on their first map of the North Atlantic, underwater cameras capable of withstanding the pressures of great depths were rare and expensive and didn’t take very clear pictures, having to shoot through their own protective glass armor and roiled water in total darkness. Submersibles like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s Alvin that could carry human beings to the bottoms of the deepest seas were still in the development stage. The best way to see what was down there was actually to hear it. Echo soundings. SONAR. You sent a sound down, listened, noted how long it took to bounce up, moved along, sent another sound down, listened again, and if that took longer to bounce back, you knew you were over a downward slope or a hole. If it bounced back quicker you were over a rise or a peak or a fish.
Heezen and other oceanographers went out to sea to make the soundings. What they brought back was a lot of disjointed information. Research vessels weren’t crisscrossing the oceans in grids. There were few such vessels, anyway. The United States had just two. The ships would go out as far as time and funding would allow, cruise about in circles for a bit, and come home along a different course, taking soundings as they went. The next expedition would chart a different course to a new location. The data they brought back was far, far from complete.
Back at the lab, Heezen’s job was to interpret the soundings. Tharp plotted his results and drew what he told her he saw---heard. To turn what they did into their first map, though, required a lot of educated guesswork.
Tharp's insight, based on her training and experience as a geologist and common sense, was that rock underwater behaved pretty much like rock on dry land. Formations implied other formations around them. A ridge, a mountain, a valley, a trench, would likely be surrounded by the features that surrounded ridges, mountains, valleys, and trenches of similar shape and size elsewhere. Her maps were essentially hypotheticals. Suppositions, conjectures, and just plain guesses guided her drawing hand. But the more data that came in, the more of her guesses were proved right. Where she’d guessed wrong, it often turned out that the correction was implicit in her diagrams. If not this, then it must be that was built into the scheme. Rarely did she have to erase a whole undersea neighborhood and start over from scratch. Her maps have been refined and redrawn many times in the decades since, but a lot of that work has been a matter of filling in and working from what she did rather than writing over it.
Her key contribution may not have been the maps themselves but what her first one---of the North Atlantic---showed.
The continents were adrift.
When Marie inked the space below the jagged lines she had drawn, the six transatlantic topographical profiles were complete: six silhouettes of the ocean floor's terrain, inked onto the staff-like graphs. Continental shelves dropped down into continental slopes, continental rises sloped down into those abyssal plains Bruce wanted to find. The island of Bermuda was there, rising above the water's surface. The wide medial ridge that had been surmised by oceanographers since the late nineteenth century was there, and wherever there weren't plains, tiny stalagmite-shaped mountains gave the floor texture. It was an accomplishment: Marie's profiles were the most detailed representations of the ocean floor ever produced. But she wasn't satisfied; she didn't think she'd discovered anything...
...Marie kept studying her profiles...She spent a lot of time looking closely at the ridge whose presence she'd confirmed, a wide bump where the ocean floor gained elevation. It was apparent on all six of the profiles, which meant that it was a range, not just one isolated mountain. And then something happened. "As I looked further at the detail, and tried to unravel it," she said, "I noticed that in each profile there was a deep notch near the crest of the ridge." a deep notch, a rift. This was something new. She kept studying it, checking the sounding records over and over to make sure she hadn't mis-plotted a depth. When she was certain she was right, she called for Bruce.
Their first big fight followed...
The fight was sparked by Heezen’s horror at what he thought he was looking at in Tharp’s map.
The possible end of his career.
If the Mid-Atlantic ridge was as Tharp had mapped it, and Heezen presented their results at a conference or in paper, he’d be going before the community of American scientists and telling them they could no longer deny what they’d been denying for a generation. Continental drift was a fact.
This was a surprise to me. By the time I was in fifth grade and Sister Mary Anthony sat me down in front of a sectionable 3D map of the earth’s crust, drifting continents were being taught as givens, like Darwin’s finches or Mendel’s beans, and I’d have been as dumbfounded to learn that only a little more than a decade ago continental drift---and its proponents---were dismissed the way Felt says they were as I would have been if someone had tried to tell me Newton was all wet and Einstein full of it. But up until Tharp’s map convinced Heezen, who really, really resisted being convinced, American scientists rejected the theory of Continental Drift.
In 1952 the words " continental drift" were fighting words. "At the time," Marie wrote in [an article for Natural History], "Bruce and almost everyone else at Lamont, and in the United States thought continental drift was impossible." Depending on your intellectual confidence, the words continual drift provoked anything from mild anxiety to flat-out horror. Not only did American scientists think continental drift impossible, they also "considered it to be a form of scientific heresy," wrote Marie. "To suggest that someone believed in it was comparable to saying there must be something wrong with him or her."
To put it very simply, continental drift is the explanation for the bumps and grooves in the earth's crust that can't be explained as the work of glaciers, volcanoes, earthquakes, erosion, and meteor strikes. The underlying idea is that the earth's crust isn't a single table of contiguous rock. It's made up of separate, separated, and still separating plates that, floating on a sea of magma, are on the move all the time, colliding with one another, rubbing up against each other, sliding over and under each other, locking together, coming apart, abrading landscapes, pushing up mountains, cracking open valleys and canyons, breaking up large land masses into islands, pushing islands together to make new larger masses of land, shaping and reshaping whole continents. The idea that the continents were moving had been batted around since the 16th Century. A German geophysicist and meteorologist named Alfred Wegener turned the idea into a fully developed theory in 1912 and it was readily accepted by many scientists around the world. On the whole, though, the scientific community was skeptical and for one reason and other, most American scientists weren’t just skeptical, they were actively hostile. Tharp probably studied continental drift in grad school but it was dismissed by textbooks in use at the time. At the time the reluctantly persuaded Heezen presented the map at a conference, most American scientists were in agreement that there were likely a number of explanations for the wrinkles in the earth's surface, but continental drift was definitely not one of them. Presented with the evidence in the map, the reflexive reaction was to insist Tharp and Heezen had gotten it all wrong. The rifts weren't there because...well, because they couldn't be there!
Here's a good place for me to point out that for all the history of the science Tharp and Heezen devoted their lives to, Soundings is not a lesson in the history of that science. It is the intimate biography of a woman who happened to be a scientist. And because so much of her life was tied up with Heezen's, it’s also the story of a partnership between two eccentric people who both happened to be scientists. Felt has us looking at Tharp and Heezen within the context of their personal lives more than their professional ones. Other than Heezen, not many other scientists appear in their own rights as scientists doing science. They show up, with their CVs pinned to them like captions in movies or TV shows quickly indentifying new characters, as witnesses to Tharp’s and Heezen’s activities at this or that point in their lives in order to provide background and to give insight into their characters. Jacques Cousteau makes a guest appearance when he brings back the first photographic proof that Tharp was right about the rifts being there and where they were. But the only other scientist who has more than a cameo is Maurice Ewing, known affectionately in life and referred to by Felt a little too chummily throughout Soundings as Doc, who founded the labs at Columbia that under his guidance grew into the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and who hired Tharp and recruited Heezen and then fell out with both of them, and his part in the book is less a story about science than it is a dispiriting tale of academic politics and friendships gone awry.
That doesn’t mean Felt neglects the science. It’s there, in fine, lyrical, flowing detail. Felt is excellent at describing processes. The process of making the maps. The processes of doing the science that led to Tharp’s maps. The geologic and oceanographic processes the science discovered and explained. But, I think, best of all, the process of Tharp’s scientific education, which began when she was a very young girl being taken out into the field by her father, a soil surveyor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, continued through her becoming the president of her junior high science club, on into her time at Ohio University, where she majored in music and art(!), and her graduate career at the University of Michigan, where she earned her master’s in geology, her work as a geologist for an oil company in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where, at the University of Tulsa, she picked up another degree, this one in mathematics, and on through her time at Columbia and her partnership with Heezen. Felt makes a persuasive case that an important part of this process was Tharp’s loneliness or, rather, her aloneness. Growing up, Tharp had few friends because the government transferred her father almost annually and no sooner had she begun to settle in at one school than she found herself plucked out and plunked down and ernolled in another. Her closest companion was her mother, who died when Tharp was in high school.
Moving around all the time, changing schools nearly every year, sometimes within the school year, losing her mother and having the responsibility for taking care of her father and their home and herself dropped on her and having to start making her own way in the world at sixteen taught her to be self-reliant, independent, and comfortable being on her own and alone with her thoughts.
These qualities sustained her in her work, which required her to spend long hours alone at her desk and drawing table, and throughout her career in a field in which few women were welcome in any jobs but secretary, file clerk, and human computer, and in her relationship with a man who was frequently away at sea for long stretches of time and who was as independent, solitary-minded, and eccentric as she was, and, possibly, not as devoted or faithful.
I'm not sure how accurate a picture Felt has painted. Sometimes it’s hard to see Tharp because Felt herself keeps getting in the way.
Soundings is an unconventional biography, like Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat, in that, like Hendrickson, Felt puts herself in her story and, like Hendrickson, when stymied by gaps in her source materials, she gives herself permission to make things up, that is, where she doesn’t know, she supposes. But unlike Hendrickson, she isn’t always upfront about it. Usually, she’ll let us know. I think, she’ll write at the beginning of a passage that is full of conjecture, supposition, or just plain guesswork. I imagine. I see. But often she’ll blend what she’s learned with what she’s surmising and then not bother to point out where the former leaves off and the latter picks up. You have to turn to the notes at the end to learn what’s what. And the notes aren’t always helpful.
I still don’t know how to sort out a passage like this:
On the street, Marie buys a hot dog and eats it in three bites as she walks the few blocks to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She likes feeling lost in its huge nave, the interior buffed and pale; occasionally she takes a long lunch and walks all the way up to The Cloisters just so she can see the miniatures with their delicate faces carved from stone. Her coat is unbuttoned and she walks it flaps around her slender torso. She wears an unstructured skirt, gathered at the waist. Scuffed black chunky shoes. Hair a loose mass of frizz around her face. She does not look like the other women, whose hair is pulled into taut rolls on various parts of their heads. Those women walk with their noses pointed forward, as if to keep their tiny hats balanced, and they wear clothes that nip in at the waist and out at the hips and fit tight round their arms. The women carry magazines, wear shoes that are light and heeled, and skip lunch to shop. Marie is not like them but she is not like the men in the office either. Or, actually, she is like the men of the geophysical lab in one important way: they’re working for their futures, and Marie is working for their futures, too.
Where did all that detail come from? How does Felt know Tharp ate a hot dog in three bites? How does she know she ate a hot dog at all? Is Felt working from one of Tharp’s letters or an interview or a third party’s memory? Is she guessing? All the note says is that the description of what Tharp is wearing is drawn from a photograph of her walking down a New York City street some time not too long after she started working at Columbia in 1948.
Going by the note on a story Felt later tells about a visit Tharp made to Heezen’s boyhood home after he died and her being given a tour of the place by its current owner, I’m thinking that much of the above paragraph is fiction. Tharp, Felt tells us in the note, did make that visit, but there was nobody home when she went and the owner and the tour are Felt’s inventions!
I didn’t feel deceived when I hit upon a passage that turned out to be half fact and half, essentially, fiction or that I suspected was. I was just baffled. Felt warns her readers what’s ahead right at the start. She tells why she took this approach. But I didn’t quite get it and still don’t. It seems to me that Felt was determined to write the same kind of biography she might have written of a poet or a philosopher or a different sort of scientist, one with a more self-reflective, self-questioning nature and the soul of a poet or a philosopher, like Loren Eisley, Albert Einstein, or Carl Sagan. Tharp, at least from what I can tell from where Felt is clearly describing her and not her own imagined version of her, was gregarious and companionable but not confiding. She loved to write letters, giving Felt a lot to draw from, but those letters are---again I’m going by what Felt has included---what you’d expect a scientist’s letters to be like, as long as you know that scientists usually write well and have good senses of humor, observant, objective, analytical, outer-directed, and almost obsessively descriptive rather than reflective, inward-looking, self-revealing, and confessional. Felt seems to have given herself the job of speaking for Tharp on the grounds that at the end of all her researching of Tharp’s life she just felt she knew her well enough to do so.
I don’t like this. My feeling is that if you’re going to novelize, then write a novel. But although I don’t like it as a matter of principle---or prejudice---I liked how Felt did it and what she did with it. I liked the book and I liked Felt’s portrait of Tharp. And it helps to see Soundings as a portrait, that is, as if it’s like a painting. You look at Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr Gachet or Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein and you don’t think, Yep, that’s exactly what those people must have looked like.
I’m not sure I was seeing the real Marie Tharp when I was reading Soundings. But I did feel I was seeing what Felt thought I should see. The portrait may not duplicate the particular person being painted but it’s certainly a person. Felt’s Tharp is very much alive in the pages of her book the way the Gachet and Stein are alive on Van Gogh’s and Picasso’s canvases.
Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor by Hali Felt, published by Henry Holt, is available from Amazon in hardback and for kindle. Review based on an advanced reader's edition.
Previously in The Mannionville Daily Gazette’s Review of Books: Caution: Identities Under Deconstruction. Skios, a novel by Michael Frayn.