The Outsider Advantage

Hali Felt

Her maps of the ocean floor have been called “one of the most remarkable achievements in modern cartography”, yet no one knows her name.

Before Marie Tharp, geologist and gifted draftsperson, most people thought the ocean floor was a vast expanse of nothingness. In 1948, at age 28, Marie walked into the newly formed geophysical lab at Columbia University and practically demanded a job. There, through sheer willpower and obstinacy, she began the task of interpreting soundings (records of sonar pings measuring the ocean’s depths) brought back from the ocean-going expeditions of her male colleagues. The marriage of artistry and science behind her analysis of this dry data gave birth, in 1959, to a major work: the first detailed map of the North Atlantic ocean floor, which laid the groundwork for proving the then-controversial theory of continental drift. By 1977 she’d mapped the entire ocean floorand plate tectonics (with continental drift as its foundation) was being taught to schoolchildren.

This session will be part presentation and part discussion, beginning with a short talk on Marie Tharp and how my own outsider status (as a creative writer looking at the history and culture of science) allowed me to make new conclusions about the import of Tharp’s work and the extent to which it influenced the practice of Earth science in the second half of the twentieth century.  We will end with a group discussion about how being a non-expert—or even being ignorant—at the beginning of a project can often lead to exciting discoveries and conclusions.