Marie’s Ocean

I first learned of the story of Marie Tharp sometime last year, when I discovered the thoroughly enjoyable science rock band The Amoeba People, and the catchy song they wrote about her research. I found the story pretty compelling, and I was surprised that I had been previously unaware of such a significant part of the history of our understanding the Earth. This unfortunately likely had to do with Marie’s gender, and the resulting limitations placed on her ability to advance in the field she helped revolutionize.

I was therefore excited to discover that not one, but two books about this geologic hero were due to be published just this year! I have also reviewed Ocean Speaks, but this in this post I shall take a look at Marie’s Ocean: Marie Tharp Maps the Mountains Under the Sea. Read along with me!

….after you watch the official music video for The Amoeba People’s “Girl Talk”, because everybody should listen to this song!

Marie’s Ocean features, of course, the story of Marie Tharp, as told by Marie herself to a curious youngster eager to learn more about her life. She begins with brief anecdotes about her early life, as well as descriptions of the state of geologic science at the time, including both how women were discouraged from active participation in the field, and how Alfred Wegener had already proposed his hypothesis of continental drift, but was unable to convincingly demonstrate it to his fellow scientists.

After partnering with Bruce Heezen to map sonar data he and others had collected, she began to notice a consistent dip in ocean depth in the middle of an undersea ridge. This apparent valley stretched the entire length of the mid-Atlantic, which suggested to Marie that it was a rift valley, an area where continental plates pull apart from each other. Geologists at the time discounted the idea of continental drift at the time, so Bruce thought it must have represented an error in the data. He directed Marie to map the data again, which she did. She even compared it with seismic data, showing that not only did the valley exist, but it was the epicenter of many undersea earthquakes, confirming it was indeed a fault of some sort, supporting her interpretation of the valley as a rift in the crust. With Bruce finally convinced, they wrote up this discovery in a formal scientific paper, which, while initially greeted with skepticism, eventually convinced the rest of the scientific community as well.

Hey, “Girl Talk!” He said the thing! You show him, Marie!

Josie James tells the story of Marie Tharp in great detail, but manages to keep it engaging along the way. The author’s narrative device of recounting the history as though from Tharp herself keeps the book from getting too dry, as it always feels more like the reader is listening to a story. That’s not to say that James skimps on the information. She explains the relevant concepts well, and seamlessly integrates the discussion of the scientific information with her illustrations, even including examples of the data that Marie processed.

After producing multiple drafts of her seafloor maps, Marie finally convinces Bruce after overlaying her charts with earthquake data.

On that note, I appreciated how many of the illustrations reproduced Marie’s own charts and maps. It really helps bring her work to life. The human illustrations remind me a bit of She Found Fossils, appropriately enough, since both books deal with similar themes of celebrating under-appreciated women in science. It’s possible the illustrations in Marie’s Ocean might tend a little too much towards (what documentary fans might refer to as) a “talking head” format for some readers, though I don’t personally mind, myself.

An illustration of how magma eruptions in the rift valley induce seafloor spreading, leading to the separation of the continents.

Marie Tharp is a pivotal figure in the history of geosciences, and our current understanding of plate tectonics could have been delayed by decades if not for her dedication and careful attention to detail. Marie’s Ocean delivers a great summation of her accomplishments, and presents them in a clear, concise format that makes it easy for readers to understand. Check out my review of Ocean Speaks to see how the two books stack up against each other, but for now, I can say Marie’s Ocean is well worth the purchase for anyone interested in science history. I am pleased to give it my Dino Dad Stomp of Approval!


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