The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor
By Hali Felt
Henry Holt & Company, Hardcover, 9780805092158, 352pp.
Publication Date: July 17, 2012
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.
“Felt’s enthusiasm for Tharp reaches the page, revealing Tharp, who died in 2006, to be a strong-willed woman living according to her own rules, defying the constraints of her time.”—The Washington Post “This is a fascinating account of a woman working without much recognition who used recorded soundings to map the ocean floor and change the course of ocean science.”—San Francisco Chronicle “Felt is a playful, wildly thoughtful writer, who can extrapolate meanings about our view of the past from outdated scientific terms…that illuminate the text with the kind of evocative details that make the story of real life so real.”—Oprah.com “[Soundings] provides a memorable account of oceanography during the 1940s to 1960s: a thrilling time when so much was being discovered. And it celebrates the extraordinary life of Tharp as a woman and a scientist.”—Nature “[Tharp] is the woman who mapped the ocean floor, forever changing scientific understanding of the planet. Ignored and marginalized for much of her career, Tharp has at last come into her own.”—Science News “Felt has been able to perform the sort of data-handling magic on these mountains of memorabilia that Tharp earlier performed on Heezen’s soundings—distilling a sharp and illuminating biography that reveals the profiles and contours of a life.”—Natural History “Felt follows the traces of Tharp’s life by deftly balancing the scientific and the poetic.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune “[Felt] wrestles complex research procedures and concepts into submission…In the same way researchers sound the floor of the ocean, Soundings finds the depths in Tharp. Both the life and the biography are rich in accomplishment.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer “Hali Felt poignantly imagines a private life the way her subject interpolated the unseen deep: hauntingly conjuring what cannot be known firsthand. Tharp [is] a fascinating character in the saga of oceanographic exploration and deserves this admiring biography.”—Bust Magazine
"Felt’s biography reimagines [Tharp's] 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."—Publishers Weekly
"Felt's biography brings [Tharp's] contributions to life...readers interested in biographies will appreciate Tharp's remarkable scientific work. Recommended."—Library Journal
"A complex, rich biography of a groundbreaking geologist who discovered 'a rift valley running down the center of the Atlantic'...A well-researched, engaging account of an important scientific discovery that should also find a place on women’s-studies shelves."—Kirkus “Delightful…[Soundings] is an artfully written biography about a rakish and headstrong woman in the sometimes antagonistic boys’-club atmosphere of academia in the mid-twentieth century…This is an exceptional story told by an equally exceptional writer.”—Booklist, starred review
“Biography readers who love discovering stories of fascinating, historically important figures should rush to find a copy of Soundings…Felt’s mission is not to embroider or alter Tharp’s essence, but to discover it, and she succeeds in this powerful portrait of a woman so driven that society could not stop her from changing the world.”—Shelf Awareness "Felt has done an outstanding job bringing Marie Tharp to life as an eccentric and colorful character…it’s a fascinating human story that reads better than some fiction.”—Story Circle Book Reviews