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WORLD OCEAN FLOOR PANORAMA, BRUCE C. HEEZEN AND MARIE THARP, 1977. COPYRIGHT BY MARIE THARP 1977/2003. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION OF MARIE THARP MAPS, LLC 8 EDWARD STREET, SPARKILL, NEW YORK 10976

How One Woman's Discovery Shook the Foundations of Geology

Original image
WORLD OCEAN FLOOR PANORAMA, BRUCE C. HEEZEN AND MARIE THARP, 1977. COPYRIGHT BY MARIE THARP 1977/2003. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION OF MARIE THARP MAPS, LLC 8 EDWARD STREET, SPARKILL, NEW YORK 10976

By Brooke Jarvis

Marie Tharp spent the fall of 1952 hunched over a drafting table, surrounded by charts, graphs, and jars of India ink. Nearby, spread across several additional tables, lay her project—the largest and most detailed map ever produced of a part of the world no one had ever seen.

For centuries, scientists had believed that the ocean floor was basically flat and featureless—it was too far beyond reach to know otherwise. But the advent of sonar had changed everything. For the first time, ships could “sound out” the precise depths of the ocean below them. For five years, Tharp’s colleagues at Columbia University had been crisscrossing the Atlantic, recording its depths. Women weren’t allowed on these research trips—the lab director considered them bad luck at sea—so Tharp wasn’t on board. Instead, she stayed in the lab, meticulously checking and plotting the ships’ raw findings, a mass of data so large it was printed on a 5,000-foot scroll. As she charted the measurements by hand on sheets of white linen, the floor of the ocean slowly took shape before her.

Tharp spent weeks creating a series of six parallel profiles of the Atlantic floor stretching from east to west. Her drawings showed—for the first time—exactly where the continental shelf began to rise out of the abyssal plain and where a large mountain range jutted from the ocean floor. That range had been a shock when it was discovered in the 1870s by an expedition testing routes for transatlantic telegraph cables, and it had remained the subject of speculation since; Tharp’s charting revealed its length and detail.

Her maps also showed something else—something no one expected. Repeating in each was “a deep notch near the crest of the ridge,” a V-shaped gap that seemed to run the entire length of the mountain range. Tharp stared at it. It had to be a mistake.

She crunched and re-crunched the numbers for weeks on end, double- and triple-checking her data. As she did, she became more convinced that the impossible was true: She was looking at evidence of a rift valley, a place where magma emerged from inside the earth, forming new crust and thrusting the land apart. If her calculations were right, the geosciences would never be the same.

A few decades before, a German geologist named Alfred Wegener had put forward the radical theory that the continents of the earth had once been connected and had drifted apart. In 1926, at a gathering of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the scientists in attendance rejected Wegener’s theory and mocked its maker. No force on Earth was thought powerful enough to move continents. “The dream of a great poet,” opined the director of the Geological Survey of France: “One tries to embrace it, and finds that he has in his arms a little vapor or smoke.” Later, the president of the American Philosophical Society deemed it “utter, damned rot!”

In the 1950s, as Tharp looked down at that tell-tale valley, Wegener’s theory was still considered verboten in the scientific community—even discussing it was tantamount to heresy. Almost all of Tharp’s colleagues, and practically every other scientist in the country, dismissed it; you could get fired for believing in it, she later recalled. But Tharp trusted what she’d seen. Though her job at Columbia was simply to plot and chart measurements, she had more training in geology than most plotters—more, in fact, than some of the men she reported to. Tharp had grown up among rocks. Her father worked for the Bureau of Chemistry and Soils, and as a child, she would accompany him as he collected samples. But she never expected to be a mapmaker or even a scientist. At the time, the fields didn’t welcome women, so her first majors were music and English. After Pearl Harbor, however, universities opened up their departments. At the University of Ohio, she discovered geology and found a mentor who encouraged her to take drafting. Because Tharp was a woman, he told her, fieldwork was out of the question, but drafting experience could help her get a job in an office like the one at Columbia. After graduating from Ohio, she enrolled in a program at the University of Michigan, where, with men off fighting in the war, accelerated geology degrees were offered to women. There, Tharp became particularly fascinated with geomorphology, devouring textbooks on how landscapes form. A rock formation’s structure, composition, and location could tell you all sorts of things if you knew how to look at it.

Studying the crack in the ocean floor, Tharp could see it was too large, too contiguous, to be anything but a rift valley, a place where two masses of land had separated. When she compared it to a rift valley in Africa, she grew more certain. But when she showed Bruce Heezen, her research supervisor (four years her junior), “he groaned and said, ‘It cannot be. It looks too much like continental drift,’” Tharp wrote later. “Bruce initially dismissed my interpretation of the profiles as ‘girl talk.’” With the lab’s reputation on the line, Heezen ordered her to redo the map. Tharp went back to the data and started plotting again from scratch.

Heezen and Tharp were often at odds and prone to heated arguments, but they worked well together nonetheless. He was the avid collector of information; she was the processor comfortable with exploring deep unknowns. As the years went by, they spent more and more time together both in and out of the office. Though their platonic-or-not relationship confused everyone around them, it seemed to work.

In late 1952, as Tharp was replotting the ocean floor, Heezen took on another deep-sea project searching for safe places to plant transatlantic cables. He was creating his own map, which plotted earthquake epicenters in the ocean floor. As his calculations accumulated, he noticed something strange: Most quakes occurred in a nearly continuous line that sliced down the center of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Tharp had finished her second map—a physiographic diagram giving the ocean floor a 3-D appearance—and sure enough, it showed the rift again. When Heezen and Tharp laid their two maps on top of each other on a light table, both were stunned by how neatly the maps fit. The earthquake line threaded right through Tharp’s valley.

They moved on from the Atlantic and began analyzing data from other oceans and other expeditions, but the pattern kept repeating. They found additional mountain ranges, all seemingly connected and all split by rift valleys; within all of them, they found patterns of earthquakes. “There was but one conclusion,” Tharp wrote. “The mountain range with its central valley was more or less a continuous feature across the face of the earth.” The matter of whether their findings offered evidence of continental drift kept the pair sparring, but there was no denying they had made a monumental discovery: the mid-ocean ridge, a 40,000-mile underwater mountain range that wraps around the globe like the seams on a baseball. It’s the largest single geographical feature on the planet.

LAMONT-DOHERTY EARTH OBSERVATORY

In 1957, Heezen took some of the findings public. After he presented on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at Princeton, one eminent geologist responded, "Young man, you have shaken the foundations of geology!” He meant it as a compliment, but not everyone was so impressed. Tharp later remembered that the reaction “ranged from amazement to skepticism to scorn.” Ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau was one of the doubters. He’d tacked Tharp’s map to a wall in his ship’s mess hall. When he began filming the Atlantic Ocean’s floor for the first time, he was determined to prove Tharp’s theory wrong. But what he ultimately saw in the footage shocked him. As his ship approached the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, he came upon a deep valley splitting it in half, right where Tharp’s map said it would be. Cousteau and his crew were so astonished that they turned around, went back, and filmed again. When Cousteau screened the video at the International Oceanographic Congress in 1959, the audience gasped and shouted for an encore. The terrain Tharp had mapped was undeniably real.

1959 was the same year that Heezen, still skeptical, presented a paper hoping to explain the rift. The Expanding Earth theory he’d signed on to posited that continents were moving as the planet that contained them grew. (He was wrong.) Other hypotheses soon joined the chorus of explanations about how the rift had occurred. It was the start of an upheaval in the geologic sciences. Soon “it became clear that existing explanations for the formation of the earth’s surface no longer held,” writes Hali Felt in Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor.

Tharp stayed out of these debates and simply kept working. She disliked the spotlight and consented to present a paper only once, on the condition that a male colleague do all the talking. “There’s truth to the old cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words and that seeing is believing,” she wrote. “I was so busy making maps I let them argue. I figured I’d show them a picture of where the rift valley was and where it pulled apart.”

By 1961, the idea that she’d put forward nearly a decade before—that the rift in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge had been caused by land masses pulling apart—had finally reached widespread acceptance. The National Geographic Society commissioned Tharp and Heezen to make maps of the ocean floor and its features, helping laypeople visualize the vast plates that allowed the earth’s crust to move. Throughout the 1960s, a slew of discoveries helped ideas such as seafloor spreading and plate tectonics gain acceptance, bringing with them a cascade of new theories about the way the planet and life on it had evolved. Tharp compared the collective eye-opening to the Copernican revolution. “Scientists and the general public,” she wrote, “got their first relatively realistic image of a vast part of the planet that they could never see.”

Tharp herself had never seen it either. Some 15 years after she started mapping the seafloor, Tharp finally joined a research cruise, sailing over the features she’d helped discover. Women were generally still not welcome, so Heezen helped arrange her spot. The two kept working closely together, sometimes fighting fiercely, until his death in 1977. Outside the lab, they maintained separate houses but dined and drank like a married couple. Their work had linked them for life.

In 1997, Tharp, who had long worked patiently in Heezen’s shadow, received double honors from the Library of Congress, which named her one of the four greatest cartographers of the 20th century and included her work in an exhibit in the 100th-anniversary celebration of its Geography and Map Division. There, one of her maps of the ocean floor hung in the company of the original rough draft of the Declaration of Independence and pages from Lewis and Clark’s journals. When she saw it, she started to cry. But Tharp had known all along that the map she created was remarkable, even when she was the only one who believed. “Establishing the rift valley and the mid-ocean ridge that went all the way around the world for 40,000 miles—that was something important,” she wrote. “You could only do that once. You can’t find anything bigger than that, at least on this planet.”

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AMNH // R. Mickens
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science
What It’s Like to Write an Opera About Dinosaurs
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AMNH // R. Mickens

There are many challenges that face those writing the lyrics to operas, but figuring out what can rhyme with dinosaur names isn’t often one of them. But wrangling multisyllabic, Latin- and Greek-derived names of prehistoric creatures into verse was an integral part of Eric Einhorn’s job as the librettist behind Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt, a new, family-friendly opera currently running at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Created by On Site Opera, which puts on operas in unusual places (like Madame Tussauds Wax Museum) across New York City, in conjunction with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt follows the true story of Rhoda Knight and her grandfather, the famous paleoartist Charles R. Knight.

Knight worked as a freelance artist for the American Museum of Natural History from 1896 until his death in 1953, creating images of extinct species that paved the way for how we imagine dinosaurs even now. He studied with taxidermists and paleontology experts and was one of the first to paint dinosaurs as flesh-and-blood creatures in natural habitats rather than fantastical monsters, studying their bones and creating sculptural models to make his renderings as accurate as contemporary science made possible.

In the 20-minute opera, singers move around the museum’s Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, performing among skeletons and even some paintings by Knight himself. Einhorn, who also serves as the director of On Site Opera and stage director for the opera, wrote the libretto based on stories about the real-life Rhoda—who now goes by Rhoda Knight Kalt—whom he met with frequently during the development process.

Soprano Jennifer Zetland (Rhoda) sings in front of a dinosaur skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History.
AMNH // R. Mickens

“I spent a lot of time with Rhoda just talking about her childhood,” he tells Mental Floss, gathering anecdotes that could be worked into the opera. “She tells this great story of being in the museum when they were unpacking the wooly mammoth,” he says. "And she was just there, because her grandfather was there. It's being at the foot of greatness and not even realizing it until later.”

But there was one aspect of Rhoda’s childhood that proved to be a challenge in terms of turning her story into a performance. “Unfortunately, she was a really well-behaved kid,” Einhorn says. “And that doesn't really make for a good opera.”

Knight Kalt, who attended the opera’s dress rehearsal, explains that she knew at the time that if she misbehaved, she wouldn’t be allowed back. “I knew that the only way I could be with my grandfather was if I was very quiet,” she says. “Sometimes he would stand for an hour and a half discussing a fossil bone and how he could bring that alive … if I had interrupted then I couldn't meet him [at the museum anymore].”

Though Knight Kalt was never an artist herself, in the fictionalized version of her childhood (which takes place when Rhoda is 8), she looks around the museum for the missing bones of the dinosaur Deinocheirus so that her grandfather can draw them. The Late Cretaceous dino, first discovered in 1965, almost didn't make it into the show, though. In the first draft of the libretto, the dinosaur Rhoda is searching for in the museum was a relatively new dinosaur species found in China and first unveiled in 2015—zhenyuanlong suni—but the five-syllable name proved impossible to rhyme or sing.

Rhoda Knight Kalt stands next to the head of a dinosaur.
Rhoda Knight Kalt
Shaunacy Ferro

But Einhorn wanted to feature a real dinosaur discovery in the opera. A paleontologist at the museum, Carl Mehling, suggested Deinocheirus. “There are two arms hanging right over there,” Einhorn says, gesturing across the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, “and until [recently] the arms were the only things that had ever been discovered about Deinocheirus.” Tying the opera back to an actual specimen in the museum—one only a few feet away from where the opera would be staged—opened up a whole new set of possibilities, both lyrically and otherwise. “Once we ironed that out, we knew we had good science and better rhyming words.”

As for Knight Kalt, she says the experience of watching her childhood unfold in operatic form was a little weird. “The whole story makes me laugh,” she says. But it was also a perfectly appropriate way to honor her grandfather. “He used to sing while he was painting,” she says. “He loved the opera.”

Performances of Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt will be performed at the American Museum of Natural History on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays until October 15. Performances are free with museum admission, but require a reservation. The opera will later travel to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera.

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iStock
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Animals
11 Buoyant Facts About Humpback Whales
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iStock

Humpback whales are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet. Hunted almost to extinction during the 19th and early 20th centuries, their populations are slowly recovering, and now they’re a favorite sight for whale-watchers. Here are 11 facts you might not have known about the mysterious marine giants, who are known for their acrobatics and for sidling right up alongside boats to get a good look at their human observers.

1. THEY’RE LONGER THAN A SCHOOL BUS.

North American school buses max out at about 45 feet long. Female humpback whales—which are larger than males—can be up to 60 feet long, and their pectoral fins alone can be 15 feet long. At birth, humpbacks weigh around 1 ton, doubling in size during their first year of life and eventually reaching up to 40 tons.

2. THEY HAVE HUGE MOUTHS.

In keeping with the rest of their bodies, their mouths are huge—their tongue alone is the size of a small car. But the opening to their throat is only about the size of a grapefruit, according to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, so they can’t swallow large prey. Instead, they eat krill, small fish, and plankton. They can eat up to a ton of food per day, according to the 2015 documentary Humpback Whales.

3. THOSE BUMPS ARE HAIR FOLLICLES.

Each of the distinctive bumps along a humpback’s head holds a single hair that the whale uses to sense the environment around it. These hairs help the whale glean information about water temperature and quality.

4. THEIR FLUKES ARE LIKE FINGERPRINTS.

Like human fingerprints, humpback tails can be used to identify individuals. The pigmentation and scarring on their flukes is unique, and scientists document these markings to keep track of certain whales that they see repeatedly during their research trips.

5. THEY LIVE A LONG TIME, BUT NOT AS LONG AS MANY OTHER WHALES.

Most humpback whales make it into their 60s, but scientists estimate that they may live up to 80 years. Still, that’s nothing compared to bowhead whales, a species whose oldest known individuals have lived to be 200 years old.

6. THEY HAVE THE LONGEST MIGRATIONS OF ANY MAMMAL.

Each year, humpbacks migrate from their feeding grounds in cold waters toward warm breeding areas—Alaskan whales head to Hawaii, while Californian whales head to Mexico and Costa Rica, and Australian whales migrate to the Southern Ocean. These biannual journeys can involve distances of up to 5000 miles, which is officially the longest known migration of any mammal on earth.

The fastest documented migration of a humpback whale was observed in 1988, when a humpback traveled from Sitka, Alaska to to Hawaii in just 39 days—or possibly less, depending on how soon it left Alaskan waters after the researchers sighted it the first time [PDF]. That’s a journey of about 2750 miles point to point.

7. THEY HAVE BEEN KNOWN TO DEFEND OTHER SPECIES FROM ORCAS.

In 2009, marine ecologist Robert Pitman watched two humpback whales rescue a seal from a group of orcas that were pursuing it. The seal ended up on one of the humpbacks’ chests, and when it began to fall off, the whale even nudged it back on with a flipper, indicating that it was an intentional act of altruism. Though it’s not entirely clear why they would do so, it appears to be an offensive response on the part of the humpbacks, who may intervene whenever they hear killer whales fighting, whether one of their own is involved or not.

8. ONLY THE MALES SING.

Their songs may have made the species famous, but not every humpback sings. It’s strictly a male behavior, and plays an important part in courtship displays. There’s plenty of mystery that still surrounds the science of whale songs, but in 2013, researchers discovered that it’s a group activity that involves even sexually immature males. Both young and mature whales sing in chorus, giving the immature whales a lesson in singing and courtship behavior, and helping older whales amplify their songs to draw females to the area from afar. Other research has found that these songs change over times, and whales learn them much like a human learns a new song, bit by bit.

9. BREACHING IS LIKE YELLING

Though humpbacks are famous for their songs, that’s not the only way they communicate. Scientists only recently discovered that breaching—when whales jump up into the air, crashing back down into the water—is a way to keep in touch with far-away friends. Humpbacks leap higher and more often than other whales, and while spectacular to witness, the moves come at a cost: It takes a lot of energy, especially when the whales are fasting. But after 200 hours observing humpbacks migrating past the Australian coast, a team from the University of Queensland found that the whales were more likely to breach when the nearest group of other humpbacks was more than two and a half miles away, and that they were more likely to do so when it was windy out. It appears that breaching is a way to communicate over long distances when there is a lot of competing noise.

10. THEIR SONGS ARE INCREDIBLY COMPLEX …

Humpback songs aren’t just showy. They have their own grammar, and their songs are hierarchical, like sentences. In human language, this means that the meaning of sentences depends on the clauses within them and the words within them. In 2006, mathematical analysis found that humpbacks use phrases, too. And they remix their tunes, too, tweaking them and changing them over time, often combining new and old melodies. Humpback songs have even been visualized as sheet music.

11. … AND HELPED END WHALING.

Researchers estimate [PDF] that prior to the whaling boom of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were around 112,000 humpbacks in the North Atlantic alone, but that by the time commercial whaling was banned in the region in 1955, there were less than 1000 individuals left. Between 1947 and the 1970s, the USSR alone killed an estimated 338,000 humpbacks, falsifying data it was required to submit to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to disguise the illegal magnitude of its hunting operation. It has been called “one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.”

While the populations have grown and humpbacks have been taken off the endangered species list, some estimates put the worldwide humpback population at only 40 percent of what it was before the whaling era. Whaling was banned throughout the rest of the world in 1966, though Norway, Iceland, and Japan still practice it.

Roger Payne, one of the scientists who first discovered that humpbacks sing songs, later became instrumental in pushing to protect the species in the 1960s. In 1970, he released his recording of humpback songs as a record, which remains the best-selling nature recording in history. In 1972, the songs were played at a Greenpeace meeting, and ended up galvanizing a new movement: Save the Whales. “It certainly was a huge factor in convincing us that the whales were an intelligent species here on planet Earth and actually made music, made art, created an aesthetic,” as former Greenpeace director Rex Weyler told NPR in 2014. The campaign gained traction with other organizations, too, and helped lead to the International Whaling Commission’s 1982 whaling ban.

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