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I'm always fascinated by the unsung scientific heroes, those whose research affects our lives but whose names we never know. Maire Tharp is one such person, and her story is told in Hali Felt's Soundings, now out in paperback.
Here's the publisher's summary:
Before Marie Tharp’s groundbreaking work in the 1950s, the ocean floor was a mystery—then, as now, we knew less about the bottom of the sea than we did about outer space. In a time when women were held back by the casually sexist atmosphere of mid-twentieth-century academia—a time when trained geologists and scientists like Tharp were routinely relegated to the role of secretary or assistant—Tharp’s work would completely change the world’s understanding of our planet’s evolution. By transforming dry data into beautifully detailed maps that laid the groundwork for proving the then controversial theory of continental drift, Tharp, along with her lifelong partner in science, Bruce Heezen, upended scientific consensus and ushered in a new era in geology and oceanography. "A playful, wildly thoughtful writer" (Oprah.com), Hali Felt vividly captures the romance of scientific discovery and brings to life this "strong-willed woman living according to her own rules, defying the constraints of her time" (The Washington Post).Oh to be in the right field at just the right moment in history. Tharp was lucky in that way in terms of science, but she was unlucky in her timing as far as society was concerned. Hali Felt's biography explores these and other aspects of the life of this intelligent, strong, and independent researcher.
Felt, a nonscientist, makes it easy for the lay-reader to grasp the significance of Tharp's work, which had far-reaching consequences across a range of fields, from geology to evolution. But Soundings is much more than a recounting of the cartographer's academic work, it's also about Tharp as a person who bucked conventions on several levels: She was a woman scientist who had a lifelong relationship with a man she never married. She was strong willed, feisty, and not afraid to argue or stand up for what she knew was right.
Young women born after, say, 1980 may be surprised by just how difficult it was for Tharp to have the life she wanted. Women in in the mid-twentieth century might be educated, but no matter how many degrees they had earned, the vast majority of them held secondary places in research institutions. In fact, in the early years of her work, Tharp was not allowed on the research vessels because it was considered bad luck to have a woman on board ship. Truly. Thus her male partner gathered data, while she stayed behind to create the maps and interpret results.
Relying on as many firsthand accounts as possible, Felt introduces us to the public and private sides of this one-of-a-kind woman. The author was lucky enough to have had access not only to archival material (photographs, interviews, tapes) but also to Tharp's personal scrapbooks, letters, and memorabilia. Felt skillfully weaves together the facts, sifts through the rumors, and presents a readable, personal story that you won't soon forget.
For more on Maire Tharp, read her obituary from Columbia University. For a look at her maps, check out Google Earth. For more on Hali Felt, visit her website, like her Facebook page, and follow her on Twitter.
Picador USA is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, visit the Picador's website. While there, take a look at the Picador book club and reading guides and sign up for their newsletters. For up-to-date news, don't miss their Tumblr site or Facebook page and follow them on Twitter.
Published by Henry Holt & Co. / Picador 2013
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