Felt, Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor.
Hali Felt earned her MFA from the University of Iowa, and she currently teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Her intention with this biography is to investigate and provide details about the life of Marie Tharp, the woman who mapped the floor of the oceans of the world using data in the form of sonar soundings. Felt tells us ".... if I could restore the detail to Tharp's life, I could restore the import of her work" (6), so researching Marie Tharp's history is supposed to increase public awareness of the real extent of her contribution to what we know about oceanic cartography and geophysical science. Tharp was born in 1928 and she died in 2006. Felt conveys that, for most of Tharp's life, she was not sufficiently recognized for her work. This book compares Tharp's research, discoveries, and inferences with what we know about the oceans of our world today.
In addition to researching and conveying aspects of geology and oceanography, Felt collected photographs, articles, letters, interview transcriptions, audiotapes, books, maps, and papers related to Tharp herself and those with whom she worked. Her compilation of primary sources for Tharp's story is staggering and extensive. She utilized materials from the Tharp-Heezen Collection in the Library of Congress and Bruce Heezen's papers from the Smithsonian Institution Archives. (Heezen was Tharp's life partner.) Felt also used transcripts from Tharp's taped interviews and stories told by Tharp's friends, colleagues, and employees. She visited Heezen's and Tharp's houses in order to gain a deeper understanding of their personalities and life styles. In her endnotes, Felt says, "I tried to imagine that I was writing a very long letter to Marie" (303). As a result of her immersion in everything Tharp that she could find, Felt creates a compelling narrative about an unknown woman who made a unique scientific contribution in our time. Felt is a quintessential storyteller, and being allowed to peek at her long letter is pure pleasure.
Felt explains the history of popular geological theories, information that is essential to understanding why Tharp's work was historic and groundbreaking. The book consists of five parts organized into 33 chapters and including endnotes. Felt's introduction explains her interest in Tharp and she says she hopes to "....take the things in front of me and weave them together to make something whole" (7). Subsequent parts of the book address: (Part One) Tharp's childhood, adolescence and young adulthood; (Part Two) Her initial work at the Lamont Geophysics Lab at Columbia University and her meeting and work with Bruce Heezen; (Part Three) Politics, jealousy, intellectual property and gender issues that interfered with continuing work at Columbia; (Part Four) The sudden death due to heart attack of Bruce Heezen (Part four is eleven pages long); and finally Part Five, Tharp's life without Bruce.
As a child, Marie Tharp is described as living a nomadic life, moving from place to place because her father's job with the U.S. Soil Bureau required it (17). She was allowed to be independent, a little girl who went out with her father while he was working, and explored and drew and wrote and was fascinated with discoveries. Felt tells us that the Tharp family seemed to be happy in spite of their transience. Tharp was an only child who argued with her parents (and often won) (19) and accepted the life of one who never stays in one place for very long. Tharp's mother died when she was a teenager (34). Included in the book are a few photographs of Tharp to provide information about her childhood and Felt tells us that much of what she has written about young Tharp was gleaned from interviews conducted later in Tharp's life.
When it was time for Tharp to begin college, she thought that becoming a teacher was her only choice. She admitted that she would have liked to be a surveyor like her father, but realized that such an option wasn't open to a girl. This was the accepted notion at the time, and in later interviews with Helen Shepard (from the Society of Women Geographers) Tharp reported that she didn't balk at it (33). So she began her college career as an art major, where she sketched and learned about design. In her second semester of college, she decided to change majors and study music. In her third semester she studied zoology and German, and she tried many other majors, including education (which she hated) (37).
What's fascinating about her study process is that her eclectic and varied interests show a divergent character. Felt says that this gathering of educational tidbits would serve Tharp well later on, but also is cognizant of the fact that in today's world of higher education, a student who was such an open-minded thinker might be labeled "directionless" and might never complete a degree. Tharp took classes in historical and physical geology, and was gently mentored into taking drafting and other classes as well (38). Then, having earned more credit hours than were required, she told her dean that she was finished with her undergraduate work. She went on to complete her Masters in geology at the University of Michigan. She worked as an assistant to a geologist in the petroleum industry in Oklahoma for a few years, and, in a later interview, admitted that she was bored with her job (50). She noted that women with Masters degrees were paid to do things that high school students were capable of doing (50). She continued to take math classes toward a second Bachelor's degree at night and, according to Felt, yearned to be allowed to do the work that men do.
In 1948, Tharp left her job in Oklahoma and sought a position elsewhere for herself. She was a woman attempting to get a job in a man-only profession, in a man-only geological world. On the campus at Columbia University, when she entered an office in Schermerhorn Hall and explained to the secretary that she was looking for work, the secretary looked her up and down and responded, "Well. I suppose that since you've got a degree in math Dr. Ewing might be able to use you" (55). Two weeks later, when Tharp was able to meet with Ewing in the geophysical lab at Columbia University, he was struck by the diversity of her education and background. After listening to her enthusiastically talk about her qualifications for several minutes, he asked her, "Can you draft?" (67).
Felt's storytelling is clever, and the reader immediately knows that this is a simple yet profound turning point in Tharp's life. She was hired to work in the geophysics lab because she could draft and her assigned job was "to work as an assistant to the male graduate students, to act as a human calculator, and draft copies of simple maps and diagrams" (68). Tharp was a number-cruncher whose job was "strictly arithmetic" (72).
Felt's descriptions of the "managed" male graduate students and some of their antics are irresistibly funny. The geophysics lab was noisy and distracting. The rowdy young men who studied there slept in their cars, debated over lunch ("salami and cheese sandwiches and beer") and had Friday afternoon parties at the end of the workweek. They went on expeditions at sea, presented their information at conferences, authored papers and books, got their names in print, married and had children (84). Many of the students later served as Tharp's assistants, and she also worked with high school students who assisted her in map making, creation, and production (178).
Another pivotal point in the book occurred when Tharp, having crunched numbers for the graduate students in the geophysics lab for four years, was reassigned to work as Bruce Heezen's assistant. Heezen had been collecting fathometer records (or echo soundings) since he began voyages on the Laboratory ship in 1947. Tharp continued being responsible for mathematical calculations as she had been before until, according to Felt, Heezen and Tharp considered using sounding records to generally contemplate the structure of the ocean (94).
In 1952, the Atlantic Ocean's depths were measured using echo sounders. A fathometer produced long scrolls of paper with undulating lines representing the underwater terrain. Using countless soundings from 1947 through 1952 and a detailed record of where the Laboratory ship had gone all those years, Tharp spliced ships tracks together, translated 3,000 feet of sounding records, plotted the depths of the underwater peaks, troughs, and slopes conveyed by the soundings, then graphed the depths with dots which she interconnected. When she inked in and cross hatched the spaces, the topographical profile of the North Atlantic was evident, with mountains and plains and a very obvious mid-ocean rift valley indicating continental drift (a horrifying concept for geologists to grasp in 1952). Upon her initial "encounter" with information about Tharp in a 2006 New York Times Magazine article, Felt says, "What stood out to me was that no one believed her.... Her claims [that a rift existed as a result of continental drift] were dismissed as "girl talk" by Heezen (99). But when Tharp recalculated and drew the map again and again, the valley emerged every time (103).
Tharp's story has been so carefully researched that beyond the seminal "drafting" moments it's difficult to sift out the pieces that are most relevant and interesting; so many details are significant. Throughout the book, Tharp grows as a person, scientist, and researcher. Heezen becomes her co-worker and life partner; she grapples with the politics of personalities, higher education, and research. Her relationship with Ewing and many others lasts for what seems to be a lifetime, and the tapestry of the relationships she builds with male geologists in the book are complex and wryly predictable. She is a woman scientist and researcher who essentially labors, creates, and discovers, and the credit for what she does is often discounted, grabbed, and claimed by a male colleague.
Felt's descriptions of soundings, sonar, mapping, and the controversies associated with the paradigm shift of accepting continental drift are all details that must be caught and mulled over by the reader. Her research on these topics is exhaustive and mind-boggling. And she includes photographs of Tharp and Heezen and the soundings and maps that make the story real and alive. As a reader, I was compelled to seek out more evidence of Tharp's contribution to what we now know about the oceans. Felt accurately tells us that it was years until Tharp was given any credit for her work in print, yet she acknowledges frequently that Tharp's oceanic profiles were the most detailed representations of the ocean's floor that had ever been produced (98).
Felt uses the label "Tharpophile" to describe someone who initially might have known Tharp, worked with her and admired her, someone who might have wanted to be like her, and someone who wanted to learn from her. The label evolves into a term to describe someone who studies Tharp, and advocates for her rightful place in the scientific community. Felt does not assert that Tharp was a feminist, but certainly she lived a feminist life. A suspicion of mine is that throughout history there have been unnamed women who brilliantly taught, modeled, created, interpreted, and researched: women who were never recognized for their contributions. Admitting that she herself became a Tharpophile, Felt achieves her goal of setting Tharp's story straight in a sublimely compelling way. She tells us, in the endnotes, that as she wrote her book, it became a love letter with the "boundary between author and subject gone fluid" (363).
My interest in this book was piqued by a brief review on the radio. I was intrigued by the title of the book, but, like Felt, I would never say that oceanography and geology are part of my life interests. I would not willingly pursue more knowledge of abyssal plains, geosynclinals theory or plate tectonics.... yet in this case there's an important story of a woman attached, and that bears further investigation. We cannot separate a woman from her scientific self, just as we cannot separate a teacher from a learner. As I read I also grew; I learned a lot, and both Tharp and Felt were my teachers. What Felt does in the book is exactly what Tharp herself did when she created her maps: she extrapolates. She weaves in adventures, research, politics, drama, romance, emotion and a triumphant ending (where Tharp is finally recognized by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, The Library of Congress and the Lamont Laboratory fifty years after her work had begun). Doing so makes Soundings a fascinating read.... and possibly makes those who are up for an adventure (like me), into Tharpophiles themselves! I loved this book!
Southeast Missouri State University
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|Title Annotation:||Hali Felt|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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