Saturday, March 8, 2014

Notes from a forgotten Revolution.

There is a book under a bookcase by the South facing window of my parents living room.  It is massive, cloth bound with gold embossing, a coffee table book bigger than some coffee tables.  It is a National Geographic Atlas of the world perhaps from the late 1970's or early 1980's.  Its geopolitics reflect that with, the USSR menaces asia, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia remaining intact, and Germany existing in plural.  Countless other details no longer reflect the world, street maps, demographics, and other details of the human world have vanished brushed aside by a lifetime of progress.  It was never the fleeting details of human civilization that captured the attention. No it was always the image of world laid bare that drew in the imagination.  

1977, Thrap
Was this the map in the atlas, I am not sure, but it is close enough as to not matter.
The above map, was either on the inside of the cover or near the front is a two page spread.  It begs explanation.  What forces shaped this unimaginable world of of an endless mountain ranges, chasms deeper than the tallest mountains and so many other details.  Despite its incredible richness and detail, a work of art that has hung on many study and class room walls, it never crossed my mind to learn its story.  Thankfully a well placed display stand at a library brought that story to me. 

The book, Soundings. The story of the remarkable woman who mapped the ocean floor, as it turned out is the story of map's maker, and a reminder of a forgotten revolution in science and its forgotten revolutionaries.  One such revolutionary could have been found hunched over a drafting table on bank of the Hudson river. Marie Tharp, geologist, computer, and cartographer.

Tharp is one of too many women in science whose names were dropped or under represented, and she keeps some good company, along them  Annie Jump CannonJocelyn Bell BurnellCaroline Herschel, and countless others who were hired on to compute and never got recognized for their work.  This could be the story of opportunities lost, and sexism in the 20th century, but it is really the story of being at the right place at right time with the right tools.  

Marie Tharp took a masters in geology during WW2, while the boys were busy killing other boys. Spent a few years plotting drill holes for an oil company before taking a job in New York that would ultimately let her do real science.  We may never know what science she would have done had she the freedom to plan her own research, but data she rendered helped fuel and resolve one of the great scientific questions of the 20th century. What forces control the shape of the face of world. 

 A few sciences are blessed with grand unifying theories.  Theories that tie together facts that would otherwise be a bewildering mess, explaining what is known and predicting what should be found.  Darwin did it for biology, Quantum physics did it for the small, General and Special relativity explain a lot of rest.  Sure the physicists my complain that two scales don't play nice, but you folks can still explain most of the universe.  Geology has plate tectonics, it came to the scene late, with little fanfare and perhaps a hint of embarrassment.  

 Scroll up to the map, you will see that it is centred on the Atlantic basin.  It is from this perspective easy to imagine how South America and Africa could spoon together. One such person to make this same observation was a german meteorologist Alfred Wegener.  He backed his claims up with evidence of past climates, common rocks and deposits, and fossils, and proposed that moving the land around was a good way of explaining all that. This early version of Continental Drift got off to a rough start, but not without good reason. 

In a cartoonishly simplified version of history, Wegener is asked how the continents drift, produces a laughably incompetent answer. Later he goes to Greenland and dies doing science.  Another war makes a mess of the place, but gifts the world with some new toys.  Science starts to play with the new toys, some clever people write some papers.  Wegener is redeemed, the world a more interesting place, and people quietly sweep their expanding earth and geosyncline theories under the rug.  Helping the clever people write their papers and make sense of world the new toys was showing them was Marie Tharp. 

It is too easy to forget just how much data there is at our fingertips, and just how easy it is to render that data in nearly any style you wish.  It is just as easy to forget just how recent a development this all is.  My education and career have lead to doing a tiny amount of work in hand plotting maps and cross sections, but this work was always a sideshow to the computer or tradition.  For Marie Tharp, by hand was everything.  She gains my endless respect for producing figures that are at once beautiful and information rich, a challenge that remains even with the power tools we have today. 

What made Marie Tharp a great cartographer was her skills as geologist and a computer.  Huge portions of her life were spent rendering by hand, the jagged lines of a sonar traces onto maps of the oceans, and filling in the gaps with educated guesses as geologists do.  It in was these long draughting sessions that new clues would start emerge.  The Mid Atlantic ridge emerged from the sonar pings.  From sonar and Earthquake data, still more new features, emerged, a rift valley running through the ridge's center.  In the first rendering of this Bruce Heezen, disliking the implications of a rift system in an oceanic mountain range ordered it redone. It was, the feature persisted. 

The data would trickle in and the renderings would trickle out.  Years of tedious drafting would map a system of mountains 40,000 miles long snaking through the worlds oceans.  Fracture zones and offsets were recorded and rendered with care. 
These visualizations of the world's ocean basins would be consulted, debated, rejected, and reaffirmed but scientists across the world.  The need to explain the interconnectedness of world brings us back to continental drift.

In the style of their subject matter geologists built up a case over a long slow span of time.  And in 1968, fairly brief paper stitched together decades of observations, and made geology a much more grown up science, able to explain the world's largest features in a unified framework.  Rises trenches, great faults and crustal blocks.pfd  Or more properly...

Morgan, W. J. (1968), Rises, trenches, great faults, and crustal blocksJ. Geophys. Res.73(6),19591982, doi:10.1029/JB073i006p01959.

Anchoring the introduction of the paper is a map of ocean floor credited to Heezen and Tharp. Indeed without the thirty odd years Tharp and Heesen spent in collaboration the world of geology would be far worse off, and science would have been much slower to grow up.

When the book got my attention because of the cover, my patchy geology knowledge told me it was part of that sciences history, a key part.  This ramble was first considered as a book review, but too many things interconnected to make that an easy prospect.  The end product, brushes against the history of a science and its cast of characters whom are often underrepresented in histories.  Tharp among them.  A few things to say about the book and the subject of the book are now in order.

As a read goes it is light, informal in tone.  Where it needs to explain the science that Tharp and her colleagues were working on it does so simply and with the optimum amount of detail.  Sometimes I felt I was being given a narrative but did not know the character well, this is both a product of the authors voice, and Tharps private nature.  Yet the details that come out do show a strong woman, who pushed her way into posts where she could do science.  The last chapters, provide hints to her character one more eccentric, fierce, obsessed, which you would have to be to spend 30 years rendering the seafloors, and adventurous than 30 years of academic memos would suggest.  In the end I have to say this for Hali Felt's work, you made me wish I had had a chance to meet her.  And so I think you should have the chance too.  Sadly Marie died from lung cancer in 2006.

Not many people have atlases these days.  Now it is all about the Googles, yet even with our masses of data new instruments that require far less human labour to visualize their work is still relevant.  Under water terrain from google.  Some of the data is Heezen and Tharp, some is modern, and their style is all over it.  It will be a long time before her work is done.  The child staring at the atlas did not know it was a masterpiece that took 30 years to render.  The sometimes cartographer sometime geologist typing tips his hat in respect.

Lastly, I had to laugh in reading that during the final production of a world spanning map they had troubles with the labeling.  Yes labeling a map is a pain, and damn it I am glad I was not doing it with stick on letters or hand stencels.


1 comment:

  1. This is so well written! The atlas is still there. I picked it up for a song when the library discarded it. You were right, it is from 1981, I thought older.