The many challenges of exploring hidden realms
Imagine a young woman who sought to explore the oceans’ depths but was barred from going to sea. From her desk in New York City in the 1950s, she used bits of data gathered by the ships she couldn’t sail on to create maps that revolutionized our understanding of the seafloor and helped revise Earth’s history. Her name was Marie Tharp.
Then imagine other scientists, many decades later. They traveled to Antarctica for mapping projects of their own. Like Tharp, the researchers faced obstacles: The river they sought lies under hundreds of meters of solid ice. So the team patched together clues, including a wrinkle on the surface of a glacier, which led to the discovery of a spectacular river-carved cavern beneath the ice that’s almost as tall as the Empire State Building.
So many challenges in science revolve around exploring the invisible or inaccessible, whether the quarry is subatomic particles, distant galaxies or the genetic code of life. The desire to see, to measure, to reveal drives years of grueling, painstaking work and the invention of new tools for exploration.
In Tharp’s case, technologies refined during World War II made it possible for ships to use soundings to accurately measure ocean depth. As freelance journalist Betsy Mason reports, Tharp used that limited acoustic information to plot two-dimensional vertical slices of seafloor topography, then carefully extrapolated that information to fill in the many blank spots on the map. It was a cartographical tour de force — and one that helped scientists realize the reality of continental drift.
Present-day Antarctic researchers use World War II–era technologies including radar to peer under the ice, as well as bulky equipment to melt deep exploratory holes and then lower cameras down. It’s tedious work, but the payoff can be thrilling, freelance journalist Douglas Fox describes in this issue’s cover story. He knows firsthand. Fox has traveled to Antarctica six times and was present in 2013 when scientists tapped into a subglacial lake and retrieved water and mud samples for the first time. He remembers the goose bumps he felt upon seeing the first glimpses of the lake’s murky interior, likening it to “seeing the surface of Venus for the first time.”
Scientists got their first view of the long-sought river at the end of 2021; they were astonished when the camera spied orange shrimplike creatures. The world those animals inhabit, almost 500 kilometers from daylight, is a new mystery to explore.
Marie Tharp’s story is part of our Unsung Characters series, which tells the stories of scientists whose work has been underappreciated or little known. We launched this series online as part of our Century of Science project. The profiles proved so popular that we’re bringing them to our print readers and extending the series to elevate the work of both past and present-day scientists.
Is there a scientist whose work you think deserves more attention? We welcome your nominations for potential profile subjects. Email your suggestions to us at [email protected].