In 1912 Alfred
Wegener proposed a controversial theory about how the Earth’s land masses
formed. He said the great continents had once formed a single landmass, which
had broken up over time. The idea went against all conventional ideas, and was
It took the
work of young cartographer Marie Tharp to prove him right.
In 1947, she
worked on a team that were running expeditions around the world, mapping the
ocean floors with echolocation. However, Marie wasn’t allowed on the missions because
women were seen as ‘bad luck’…
But the work
she did back at the university was invaluable. Converting endless data into
detailed profiles, she realised that the ocean floor isn’t a flat, featureless
plane, but a complex, varied landscape.
importantly, she spotted a long, V-shaped valley in each of her profiles: a
rift valley that supported Wegener’s theory, formed by two land masses moving
apart, splitting the ocean floor in two.
But even with
this evidence, Tharp’s ideas were dismissed as ‘girl talk’.
realised that her profiles tied in with worldwide earthquake maps being
developed by a colleague.
evidence started to convince some sceptics, but not all. Renowned explorer
Jacques Cousteau was so unconvinced that he sent an expedition to film the
ocean floor and clear things up once and for all. What did his footage show?
Exactly what Tharp had predicted.
steadfast determination had paved the way for Wegener’s continental drift
theory to gain traction. As the tide of opposition waned, it gave birth
to our modern understanding of plate tectonics and secured Tharp’s
position as one of the most outstanding cartographers of the 20th century.
Once again I am filled with awe for a brilliant woman and disgust that I’ve never heard her name before today.