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How One Brilliant Woman Mapped the Secrets of the Ocean Floor

In the early part of the 20th century, German geophysicist Alfred Wegener proposed a revolutionary idea that made him the laughingstock of his peers. His “continental displacement” theory suggested that the earth’s continents once formed a single land mass that had gradually drifted apart over time. Wegener was largely disregarded by the geoscientific community until 1953, when a young cartographer named Marie Tharp began charting ocean floor depth measurements. In partnership with geologist Bruce Heezen, Tharp’s detailed maps of the ocean floor revealed rifts and valleys that supported Wegener’s controversial theory. Initially dismissed as “girl talk,” Tharp and Heezen finally brought the concept of plate tectonics to the mainstream in 1968 when they published their ocean floor map in National Geographic Magazine. Cementing her place in history, Tharp was awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal in 1978 for her pioneering research.

This animation by Rosanna Wan for the Royal Institution tells the fascinating story of Marie Tharp’s groundbreaking work to help prove Wegener’s theory.

The Short Film Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the world and selected by National Geographic editors. We look for work that affirms National Geographic's belief in the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world. To submit a film for consideration, please email The filmmakers created the content presented, and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of National Geographic Partners.