I have always enjoyed looking at maps, committing historical charts to memory and covering my bedroom walls as a teenager with political maps swiped from my dad’s National Geographic magazines. I still have a world map covering a wall in my office; I think understanding political borders and geographic proximity helps immensely with understanding what is happening in the world around us. Of course, all of that fascination with maps is focused mostly on land masses, which only cover about 30% of the Earth. What about the over 70% of the world that is covered in water – mostly oceans? With beaches and oceans being our focus for June, what better time to “dive a little deeper” into the subject of mapping the oceans…so tonight we read a book called “Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea” by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Raúl Colón, a fascinating and beautifully decorated biography of Marie Tharp, who was the first person to map the ocean floor.
When Mary was young, her father was a cartographist, and her love of maps began while watching her father do his work. His job took him and his family all over the country, and by the time she graduated high school, Mary had attended 17(!) different schools. When she went to college, Mary realized that scientists really know very little about the seafloor. When Mary graduated, she was ready to research the ocean, and be a scientist, but science wasn’t ready for Mary (me: c’mon science!). One firm told her they did not need any more file clerks when she tried to apply for a scientific position, and scientists at the Oceans Studies lab at Columbia University in New York told her it was bad luck to have a woman on a ship (so she could not go out on the research ships). Fortunately, Mary was not easily discouraged. She “bit her tongue” and with the help of a friend at Columbia, she decided to try and map the ocean floor anyway. She began to collect data from soundings taken by the lab’s research ships. As she pieced the puzzle together, Mary realized that – yes – there were in fact mountains (and valleys) under the ocean. She also found a deep crack running down the middle of the Atlantic (the Mid-Atlantic Ridge), supporting the theory held by a minority of scientists that the Earth’s surface was covered by a series of interlocking plates (Plate Tectonics). Using different colors for different depths, and engaging the services of a landscape painter from Austria, Mary finally had her masterpiece – the first map of the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Mary had always tried to think big, and in the end it paid off: her maps changed the way people looked at the world.
We really enjoyed this book – beautiful artwork, maps, an inspirational life story, maps, and an amazing woman who bucked the status quo to forever change the world for the better. With two girls, that last item is particularly important to us. Our oldest was especially inspired – her soul fired by anger at the closed-mindedness of the scientific establishment when Mary began her quest, and filled with intense admiration at Mary’s perseverance. It really is a wonderful book (whether you have daughters or not). Also – don’t forget to read the passage in the back of the book, which shines more light on Mary’s life.