Marie Tharp's map
December 9, 2014 5:12 PM   Subscribe

How One Woman's Discovery Shook the Foundations of Geology "She crunched and re-crunched the numbers for weeks on end, double- and triple-checking her data. As she did, she became more convinced that the impossible was true: She was looking at evidence of a rift valley, a place where magma emerged from inside the earth, forming new crust and thrusting the land apart. If her calculations were right, the geosciences would never be the same."
posted by dhruva (25 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
With the lab’s reputation on the line, Heezen ordered her to redo the map. Tharp went back to the data and started plotting again from scratch.

Holy Toledo she must have been furious!
posted by stinkfoot at 5:25 PM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


The original rock star.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:49 PM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


It still amazes me that Plate Tectonics was just a recent discovery. Based on the Geology classes that I remember taking, you'd think that this was common scientific knowledge for as long as we knew the world was round. Apparently, we only figured this out almost around the same time we sent people to the moon!
posted by surazal at 5:54 PM on December 9, 2014 [8 favorites]


"Women weren’t allowed on these research trips—the lab director considered them bad luck at sea"

Misogynistic lab directors "falling overboard" as soon as we hit international waters isn't so much "luck," but okay.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:14 PM on December 9, 2014 [37 favorites]


They wonder why women avoid the sciences.
posted by Oyéah at 6:15 PM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


There have been several real earthquakes (so to speak) in various branches of science in the last hundred years. Another was the discovery in the 1930's of the truth about galaxies -- i.e. how big they really are and how damned far away they are. Before that point, the universe was thought to be much smaller than we now know it to be.

And leave us not forget that the Quark theory was developed in the last fifty years.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:33 PM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


I still boggle that it's not just fuckin' obvious that things move around. I got my first globe at five or six...Africa and South America fit together wayyyyy too nicely to be a coincidence.
posted by notsnot at 7:56 PM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ms. Tharp's contributions were also covered in the ninth episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson's recent remake/update of Cosmos.
posted by hangashore at 8:02 PM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


In her own words: Marie Tharp writes about her career.
posted by hangashore at 8:27 PM on December 9, 2014 [9 favorites]


Nice link, hangashore.

Brownie points to anybody that can dig up the Cousteau footage!
posted by bird internet at 8:44 PM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


With the lab’s reputation on the line, Heezen ordered her to redo the map. Tharp went back to the data and started plotting again from scratch.

Thats normal. I do most of my analysis about 4 times, usually a few different ways, then I ask someone else to redo it too. Then we work backwards and see if it holds up. Then we show it to other people

Paranoia. It's a way of life.
posted by fshgrl at 8:52 PM on December 9, 2014 [12 favorites]


Africa and South America fit together wayyyyy too nicely to be a coincidence.

True, but one must be cautious of the scientific version of faux amis (false friends, words in one language that sound like they should mean the same as the word in your language that they sound like, but don't; e.g. pathétique in French simply means "emotional" or "affecting"). If you see a round area on map it doesn't mean you're looking at a crater; if you see a square block of stone it doesn't mean it was carved by human hands. The real confirmation of the South American/African conjoining was looking at the geological bands that you can't see on a map, and how they match up; and even then you need a plausible and confirmable mechanism.

It still amazes me that Plate Tectonics was just a recent discovery.

Of course it wasn't a recent discovery. But plate tectonics was once described as one of the clearest examples of scientific thought advancing simply by the critics of a theory eventually dying. I know that it was considered a newly accepted concept in textbooks when I was in school, and Smithsonian magazine had a lovely article on the controversy I would say around 1975-76 that essentially said "Well, now we see it's obvious" and how modern technology like satellite mapping was substantially contributing to confirmation of the theory. Cold War submarine activity was also an important factor, but I don't know if it came up in that article.

Of course, it's unlikely they mentioned Tharp.
posted by dhartung at 9:43 PM on December 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


I recall reading around 1980 a book by Asimov on science, where in a section on theories that were proven wrong he dismissed Continental Drift. The book was written in 1960, and in the 1972 edition he had to admit he was wrong...
posted by happyroach at 12:21 AM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


> It still amazes me that Plate Tectonics was just a recent discovery. Based on the Geology classes that I remember taking, you'd think that this was common scientific knowledge for as long as we knew the world was round. Apparently, we only figured this out almost around the same time we sent people to the moon!

Yup, when I was in school in the '50s and '60s it was mentioned as a crackpot theory.

> I still boggle that it's not just fuckin' obvious that things move around. I got my first globe at five or six...Africa and South America fit together wayyyyy too nicely to be a coincidence.

The world is full of coincidences, and when the crackpot theory came up that was mentioned with a chuckle as one of those coincidences that make ignorant people think incorrect things.
posted by languagehat at 5:48 AM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm doing a MOOC entitled Origins - Formation of the Universe, Solar System, Earth and Life which starts out with the formation of the universe and is currently up to the evolution of plants. It is fascinating, even if I know it is broad strokes, but I never thought before starting it that geology could be so interesting. I mean, the things you can learn from rocks! :)
posted by Fence at 6:30 AM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Bill Bryson covered the plate tectonics controversy in his A Short History of Nearly Everything. Worth a read if you think this FPP is interesting.
posted by Harald74 at 6:43 AM on December 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


Indeed, having gone to school before plate tectonics (and a lot of other things) Bill Bryson's Short History was quite a revelation to me.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:07 AM on December 10, 2014


I still boggle that it's not just fuckin' obvious that things move around. I got my first globe at five or six...Africa and South America fit together wayyyyy too nicely to be a coincidence.

thats not how science works
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:44 AM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


plate tectonics was once described as one of the clearest examples of scientific thought advancing simply by the critics of a theory eventually dying.

While this is probably somewhat true (I had a geology professor in the mid 90's who was pushing 80 and, I think, still viewed tectonics with some skepticism), the development of plate tectonic theory is really a great example of science working exactly like it's supposed to. Observation, hypothesis, test; rinse and repeat.

Since the first decent maps were drawn, people recognized that South America and Africa seemed to fit together. But did that necessarily mean that the continents were once joined? Other than the roughly parallel coastlines, there really wasn't much evidence to suggest so.

Around 1910, Alfred Wegner presented the similarity rocks on either side of the Atlantic and the presence of several fossil species in South America, Africa, Antarctica, and Australia as evidence that the continents were once joined. While that's great, he lacked a mechanism for moving continents thousands of miles around the earth. Uniformitarianism is king in geology, and if we can't observe continents moving in the present, why would we assume that they had in the past?

Cue geophysics and the Cold War. We were really concerned about enemy submarines (and how to hide our own), so we needed maps of the ocean floor. That bathymetry, the subject of the post, identified the mid-ocean ridges which really looked liked extensional structures. Add paleomagnetic data (again derived from submarine hunting) showing periods of normal and reversed polarity symmetrical about the ridges, and the idea of seafloor spreading starts to look very real. But that creates a problem: if new crust is being created at the mid ocean ridges, then the earth must be expanding, but it's not. Where's all of this oceanic crust going?

In addition the enemy subs, we're also worried about enemy nuclear testing, so we deployed a massive global array of seismographs to keep tabs on it. The data revealed earthquake zones descending at 50 or so degrees from the ocean floor beneath continental margins. A little further analysis of the seismic data then gave a clear picture of subduction zones. Top that off with the discovery of transform faults to complete the kinematics of rigid plates moving around on a sphere, and the theory of plate tectonics is unequivocal.

So in about 20 years, we go from having to invoke a lot of geopoetry (a technical term for hand-wavey bullshit) to explain our observations of the earth to firmly establishing tectonics as what is really a grand unified theory of geology. Pretty fucking spectacular if you ask me.
posted by lost_cause at 8:51 AM on December 10, 2014 [17 favorites]


Hali Felt, who wrote the biography of Tharp mentioned in the article, gave a talk on Tharp's life at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory a couple of years ago. (Disclosure: I work at the Lamont campus).
posted by plastic_animals at 8:58 AM on December 10, 2014


I still boggle that it's not just fuckin' obvious that things move around. I got my first globe at five or six...Africa and South America fit together wayyyyy too nicely to be a coincidence.

But then why don't all the other continents fit together, hmm? If this were true, then it should be true worldwide, right? Not just for Africa and South America.

The moon is nearly the same apparent size as the sun, viewed from the surface of Earth. The fit is way too nice to be a coincidence. But it is.

Until more evidence came in the form of geological stratigraphy and bathyspheric mapping, it was reasonable to be skeptical about the idea that the continents had slid around, despite the single jigsaw clue.
posted by General Tonic at 9:20 AM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


> The moon is nearly the same apparent size as the sun, viewed from the surface of Earth. The fit is way too nice to be a coincidence. But it is.

Heh, heh, that's just what we want you to think.

Wait, I mean, yes, of course it's just a coincidence. Of course!

(This was an awesome article, and the mental image of Marie Tharp seeing her map hanging next to the original rough draft of the Declaration of Independence and pages from Lewis and Clark’s journals - wow. What a vindication.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 9:36 AM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Of course, it's unlikely they mentioned Tharp.

I wouldn't make that assumption. Various publications, even popular magazines, were naming her in the 1970s.

Long interview with Tharp.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:03 PM on December 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


Is that right that the continents eventually drift back to one super continent again ?
posted by Narrative_Historian at 10:49 PM on December 10, 2014


> Is that right that the continents eventually drift back to one super continent again ?

That's the reunion tour.
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:53 PM on December 11, 2014


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