Friday, October 05, 2012

Sounding the deep

I see by reviews that there is a just-published biography of Marie Tharp.

Marie Tharp is the Rosalind Franklin of geology.

Rosalind Franklin was the X-ray crystallographer who supplied crucial data that enabled Watson and Crick to deduce the double-helix structure of DNA. She died before the award of the Nobel Prize to Watson and Crick, and was therefore ineligible for sharing (the prize is not awarded posthumously). But I doubt if she would have been included if she had lived. Science in those days was a man's world.

Marie Tharp was recruited into oceanography by the formidable Maurice "Doc" Ewing, founder of Columbia University's Lamont Geological Observatory. In 1952 she began working with Ewing's protégé Bruce Heezen, with whom she established a close professional and personal relationship. Together they began mapping the floor of the world's oceans. Their discovery of the globe-spanning mid-ocean ridges, and especially Tharp's recognition of the rift valleys that cleave the ridge, were crucial data that led to Harry Hess's revolutionary theory of sea-floor spreading and plate tectonics in 1962.

Lordy, what a decade! The double helix in 1953. Sea-floor spreading in 1962. Cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964. OK, a decade plus one. Three sciences transformed utterly. It was thrilling to have lived through.

You can read Tharp's own account of her story here. Alas, as a woman, she lived in the shadow of Ewing and Heezen.

For me, Marie Tharp is best remembered for her big wall-sized map of the world's ocean floors, published in 1977, painted by Heinrich Berann (click to enlarge), based on thousands of soundings by various research vessels, and a smaller version of the map with earthquake epicenters and magnitudes superimposed. For several decades, I taught two one-semester general studies courses called The Earth and The Universe. Tharp's maps were in constant use when I was teaching The Earth. I reduced several sets to rags. I still have a relatively intact set upstairs somewhere.

I notice Marie Tharp's Wikipedia page is astonishingly brief. The new biography is welcome. Have things changed for women? My daughter is now director of the Core Repository at what is now the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. If you live near Palisades, NY, the Observatory's open house is tomorrow, October 6, from 10 AM to 4 PM.