Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor by Hali Felt

I’m so glad I picked this book up (and bought it for the library where I work). It sounded like just the sort of thing I appreciate: a biography of a little-known historical figure who made an important contribution to the world as we know it but was herself forgotten. In this case, the “remarkable woman” of the subtitle is Marie Tharp, whose meticulous study and cartography of the ocean floor established the concept of plate tectonics that science now recognizes as fact, but was at best a blasphemous and ridiculous notion before Tharp came along. Her achievements, however, were minimized by a scientific culture in which women did not belong. This biography is additionally appealing to me for its mood: author Hali Felt takes a whimsical, dreamy, almost fanciful tone at times. She describes her own attraction to Tharp’s story (born in part of Felt’s mother’s, and her own, fascination with maps) and the relationship she felt to her subject. She dreams of Tharp coming to her to explain the mysterious and unspoken parts of her life. This book is nonfiction, but it’s honest, personally related, and warm.

There is also an enigmatic love story of sorts hiding within Soundings: Tharp’s career and life were both tied to a man named Bruce Heezen. Heezen was her coworker, then her technical superior; but they shared a partnership in work, in science, in discovery, and apparently in all things. It is known that they were a couple, although they never married and the details of this side of their relationship are very few.

Felt follows Tharp from her childhood with a science-minded father she adored, through her education in English, music, geology, and mathematics, and to her first job in the oil & gas industry (oh, how familiar to this Texas girl). But she was held back: this was the 1940’s, and women in science were mostly expected to make copies, compute numbers, and brew coffee. Eventually Tharp found her way to New York, to Columbia University and the Lamont Geological Observatory. This is where she would meet and work with Heezen and quietly make history.

The science in this book is very friendly and accessible to a general reading public; the story that Felt set out to tell is more that of a woman’s life and accomplishments despite the limitations of her society, than that of tectonic plates per se. For that matter, Felt shows that it was Marie’s combined backgrounds in art as well as science that made her perfectly suited to play the role she did in history. Her meticulous re-checkings of data and attention to detail were indispensable – but so was her interest in visually representing the data available in a way that would show the general public (not just academics) what she’d discovered. So her achievement was artistic as well as scientific. Soundings does make the science side clear, but doesn’t dwell, and is never dry. Rather, Marie Tharp comes to life: she is a precocious child; an ambitious, able, frustrated student; a dedicated scientist; a life partner; an eccentric aging woman caught up in her own past, campaigning to honor and preserve the legacy of her other half.

Hali Felt was honest about the role she plays in the story she relates. She begins in her Introduction by briefly describing her own attraction to maps, and then follows a chronological format, beginning with Tharp’s childhood and following her life, and eventually her death. And then Felt returns to the story: her discovery of Marie Tharp’s existence, her interest, her decision to follow that interest, her research, her relationships with the living descendents of Tharp and Heezen’s world (the “Tharpophiles”), and in the Acknowledgements at the end, she even hints at the process by which she came to write and publish this book. I found all of these Felt-related details interesting too.

In a word, this is a lovely biography, and the style and tone of it may be my favorite part.

Rating: 9 double-checkings of data.

11 Responses

  1. Cool. I love finding books like this one. Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. one must wonder how many more books like this are waiting to be written, about the remarkable unheralded women who contributed to the world we live in – who are “history makers” only after their history is written

    excellent review!

  3. Thank you both! Pops, it’s just exactly my kind of thing to read. Someday I’d like to write a book like this, too.

  4. […] job, of writing a biography of a scientific figure, or other science-based nonfiction. I think of Soundings or even The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, both lovely narrative works about science and people […]

  5. […] when I raved about Soundings, the biography of the woman who mapped the ocean floor? I was enchanted in part by the style in […]

  6. […] the newer style of “creative nonfiction” exemplified most recently at pagesofjulia by Soundings, but that doesn’t mean the straightforward sort of biography is necessarily dry, […]

  7. […] history, science, working conditions, civil rights, war and ethics… It could be compared to Soundings or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in its intersection of hard science with the creative, […]

  8. […] we talk about science writing, though, **the grand prize** has to go to Hali Felt for Soundings. How did I rate that book only a 9? In my memory, it should be a 10. Again with the added benefit […]

  9. […] titles as The Drunken Botanist and A Garden of Marvels, and biographies of Rachel Carson and Hali Felt, not to mention Annie Dillard‘s breathtaking Pilgrim at Tinker Creek… well, I found it […]

  10. […] am fairly certain that it was Hali Felt, author of the outstanding Soundings, that recommended this book. I’ve had it on my shelf for years, and am so glad now that I […]

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