FLOATING IDEAS

By Michael Washburn

Published: January 27, 2013

The only thing mid-20th-century scientists disliked more than being wrong was being told they were wrong by a woman. Marie Tharp, barely acknowledged in her life and nearly forgotten since her death in 2006, frustrated her male colleagues on both fronts. Working at a time when female scientists set off reflex skepticism, Tharp drafted the first comprehensive map of the ocean floor, which led to the acceptance of the once-mocked, now fundamental theory of continental drift. Not bad for someone whose discoveries were initially dismissed as “girl talk.”

Hali Felt’s vividly written biography-with-creative-indulgences brings well-needed attention to Tharp’s story. “Soundings” not only details its subject’s monumental work and entanglements with gender bias but also exerts thoughtful pressure on the boundaries and biases of this literary genre.

Tharp spent most of her career working alongside a geologist named Bruce Heezen in what was then the Lamont Geological Observatory at Columbia University. Heezen gave her boatloads of unanalyzed measurements of ocean depths, which Tharp unified to create her revelatory images. This wasn’t rote work, since large expanses of the ocean floor were uncharted. “Deep sea soundings obtained along a ship’s track,” Tharp explained, “were as a ribbon of light where all was darkness on either side.” In the absence of complete measurements, she deduced the contours of the sea floor by marrying the data with her own knowledge of geology.

Instinct plays a larger role in the scientific world than many care to admit, but Felt has chosen to emphasize Tharp’s intuition: “A musician could use her knowledge of chord progressions, harmonies or melodies to improvise her way through such a song, building a new one in the process, and Marie responded similarly, interpolating instead of improvising, drawing lines connecting known depths, hypothesizing where she had no data.”

In the course of her work, Tharp discovered an enormous valley, or rift,within the mid-Atlantic mountain range, which would prove the theory of continental drift. Yet she was underappreciated, and in 1982, a few years after Heezen’s sudden death from a heart attack, she was pushed into early retirement. Even Heezen, whose research and academic writing relied on her mapping, never fully acknowledged her contributions. Nonetheless, Tharp remained devoted to their work and to him. After his death, she had his pants cut into strips and made into skirts so she could wear them – a mourning rite that’s just one piece of the evidence Felt uses to argue that Heezen and Tharp were romantically as well as professionally linked.

Like so many of the psychological details and personal exchanges in “Soundings,” this is speculation. Throughout, Felt presents her own renditions of Tharp’s emotions (about her peripatetic childhood, about her youthful failed marriage) and her encounters (with Heezen, her colleagues, her family), extrapolating from the scant archive. Here she imagines Tharp’s first meeting with Heezen:

``Mouths taste like coffee in the morning so I guess theirs do too.

``Hello.

“Marie presents her right hand to Bruce so that he can shake it, but he just sort of stares at it for a second.”

Inspired by Tharp’s own extrapolations, Felt supplements her research with what she calls “imagined” scenes, bridging “the known to the unknown.” Some readers will claim that although geology adheres to a cause and effect embedded in the physical record, disinterested biographies can’t be similarly constructed. But Felt – a continual presence, her authorial “I” commenting, guessing, feeling – makes no attempt to soften her position as a “Tharpophile.”

Which makes “Soundings” startlingly honest. Writers often improvise connections, but their interpretive performance is usually camouflaged by postures of certainty. “Soundings” is an eloquent testament both to Tharp’s importance and to Felt’s powers of imagination.

(Michael Washburn is a research associate with the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.)
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