By Andrew Mc Barnet


Business • People • Technology

Awarding credit where it is due

March is the month of the Hollywood Oscar awards, featuring actors in an over-long orgy of showbiz self-congratulation in a format which all seems rather dated and indeed every year experiences a steady decline in the TV ratings. Mercifully, no such over-the top extravagance accompanies the award ceremonies in our professional societies, arguably they could do with a little more pizzaz.

However, there is one glaring deficiency to which the geoscience societies (EAGE, SEG, AAPG) have to own up, namely the gender imbalance in the awards over the decades. Hopefully this has been unintentional and a reflection of how geoscientific research and industry was conducted in the past. The many societal forces at work that over time have disadvantaged women in the activities served by geoscience are beyond the scope of this discussion, as are the possible mitigating circumstances and solutions.

To be clear, this is not a name and shame exercise, but the facts are rather startling if you look at the winners of the most prestigious honours (apologies in advance if any names are missing). EAGE first. The top life achievement Desiderius Erasmus Award (established 1999) has never gone to a woman, next year’s 2024-25 president Valentina Socco is our only female winner of the Conrad Schlumberger (est. 1955), and we have only had two female honorary members since 1955. SEG’s top Maurice Ewing Medal (est. 1978) has been awarded once to a woman, Rosemary Knight, sometimes referred to as ‘mother of hydrogeophysics’. There has been just one honorary member since 1930, Sally Zinke, the society’s first female president, and only one woman has won the Virgil Kauffman (est. 1996). At AAPG this year, Kitty L. Milliken became the first woman to be awarded the society’s top honour (Sidney Powers Memorial Award, est.1945) and in the past three years two women have been awarded the Michael T. Halbouty Outstanding Leadership Award (est. 1972).

Predictably, none of these and many of the societies’ other awards bear the name of a woman. That at least has changed. Recently the EAGE had the opportunity to name a new innovation prize for young professionals after the American geologist Marie Tharp (1920-2006), posthumous recognition of the unheralded role she played in modern mapping of the world’s deep ocean seabed beginning in the 1940s, winning over sceptics of Plate Tectonics and Continental Drift theories.

Just as remarkable an achievement was how Tharp persisted in a male-dominated scientific community to eventually earn international acclaim for her contribution to what she termed with all humility ‘a revolution in geological thinking, which in some ways compares to the Copernican revolution.’ In her highly recommended, autobiographical account published by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1999, she writes, ‘I worked in the background for most of my career as a scientist, but I have absolutely no resentments. I thought I was lucky to have a job that was so interesting. 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. You could only do that once. You can’t find anything bigger than that, at least on this planet.’

Even Tharp’s journey into geology is inspirational in the sense that it was the subject matter that persuaded her. Early on, she sometimes accompanied her father in the field. He worked for the government agriculture department collecting data for soil survey maps, so there was an early connection with the earth. Her mother was a teacher and they travelled as a family all over the US so much so that by the end of high school she had apparently attended 17 different establishments. Subsequently at Ohio University she recalled that teaching, nursing or being a secretary seemed to be her destiny, so duly graduated in education with majors in English and music plus four minors including some science, but with no enthusiasm for teaching.

The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and America’s entry into the Second World War was the pivotal moment for her. The vacuum left by men off to war opened opportunities for suitably qualified women to work in the oil business. Tharp seized the moment, earned a Master’s degree in petroleum geology at the University of Michigan and found an oil job in Oklahoma. In keeping with the times, she was barred as a woman from field work and confined to working on maps and data collected by men. Dissatisfied, she obtained a further degree in math at night classes, and in 1948 shipped off to New York. Her initial target was the American Museum of Natural History. However, she formed the impression that the paleontological work involved would be tedious and hence applied for a research post at the University of Columbia based on her math background. There, she was interviewed by the legendary Maurice (‘Doc’) Ewing, founder in 1949 of the Lamont Geological Observatory (now the Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory), who suggested map drafting (apparently unaware of her geology degree) and unknowingly assigned her a future place in the pantheon of 20th century cartographers.

Almost immediately she was assisting, then collaborating, with Bruce Heezen, a new graduate arrival at Lamont. The partnership lasted until his death in 1977, an agonising few months before the definitive World Ocean Floor panorama was published. Theirs was a romantic as well as professional relationship, according to Hali Felt in the speculative 2012 book Soundings about Tharp and her importance.

Indisputably, the relationship was hardly equitable although Tharp never complained. The two researchers were assigned by Ewing to draft and plot ocean floor profiles of the North Atlantic. For years Heezen would collect bathymetric data onboard the research ship Vema, while Tharp stayed onshore to draw maps from the data and other sources because women were barred from working on research ships. It wasn’t until 1968 that she made her first trip offshore. When Heezen announced the first breakthrough on mapping of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in 1957 and in some later presentations, there was no recognition of Tharp.

From 1952 she had first begun working with sounding profiles acquired from the Woodhole research vessel Atlantis, during 1946–1952, thanks to the availability of echo sounding technology developed during the war for submarine warfare by Ewing and J. (Joe) Lamar Worzel. She created approximately six profiles stretching west to east across the North Atlantic. She described the meticulous, painstaking work involved in those pre-computer days – ‘When each chief scientist completed his cruise … he debarked with a roll of sounding data. Hester Haring (Tharp’s co-worker), with her meticulous handwriting, using a crow quill pen and India ink on blue linen, maintained the Vema sounding records on standard 1:1,000,000 sheets for many years.’

From these profiles, Tharp could study the bathymetry of the northern sections of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and spot an aligned, v-shaped structure running continuously through the axis of the ridge. She believed it might be a rift valley formed by the oceanic surface being pulled apart. She later recalled that Heezen initially dubbed the idea as ‘girl talk’, as it would have supported the controversial Continental Drift theory, challenging the more accepted Expanding Earth hypothesis of the time. Soon a different project studying earthquake epicentres showed large numbers of earthquakes occurring along the rift helping to provide the incontrovertible evidence of the rift’s existence needed.

Another idea helped to sway the argument, namely the production of a physiographic diagram of the ocean floor providing an imaginary view of a low-flying plane. According to Tharp, ‘it allowed us to capture the seafloor’s many textured variations, contrasting the smoothness of the abyssal plains, for example, with the ruggedness of the mountains along the ridges. But we also had an ulterior motive: Detailed contour maps of the ocean floor were classified by the US Navy, so the physiographic diagrams gave us a way to publish our data. In retrospect, our choice of map style turned out to be significant because it allowed a much wider audience to visualise the seafloor.’ A first physiographic map of the North Atlantic done in pen and ink was first published in 1957.

In 1959 Jacques Cousteau, the French deep ocean explorer who had initially been sceptical, towed a movie camera on a sled across the Atlantic Ocean near the seabed. He encountered the rift valley and produced, as Tharp put it later, ‘beautiful movies of big black cliffs in blue water’, which he showed at the first International Ocean Congress in New York.

As the years went by the geological community was increasingly convinced and technology, e.g., seismic and magnetic imaging, enhancing the data. There were hassles along the way.

In the 1960s Ewing and Heezen had a falling out. Tharp lost her job and from then on continued her work from home paid for by Heezen from US Navy contracts. Heezen had tenure so could not be fired, but for a period he was denied access to Lamont data and its vessel.

Tharp and Heezen were still able to apply the technique to all the oceans of the world with help from many sources. Their illustrations were vastly enhanced after a random letter from a girl in Switzerland claiming her Dad (Heinrich Beran) could paint much better than them. So it proved. By 1975 all the oceans had been mapped and coloured and then in 1977 the whole world in one picture was published. Tharp retired six years later. Recognition only came later, notably in 1997 when the Library of Congress’ Phillips Society named her as one of the outstanding cartographers of the 20th century.