Tanya Atwater
Biographical Information


Information for Young People


Here is some information about myself that I wrote for a fifth grader who was doing a project about the plate tectonic theory and the scientists who study it. Maybe you can use it too.

Plate Tectonics is a really wonderful theory! I have spent my whole professional life working on it and I never get bored. Do you know that in science we can never really prove anything, once and for all? All we can ever do is think up theories and then test them with measurements to see if they fit. If you can't think of things to measure in order to test your theory then no one will pay much attention to it. That's what happened to the theory of continental drift.
       The theory of continental drift was written by a man named Wegener about 1920 and lots of people were curious about it, but no one could think of what to measure that would convince everyone that it was probably right. It's a funny thing, when they finally did make the convincing measurements, it was by accident.
       In the 1940s and 1950s, geologists finally invented good instruments that they could use on ships to measure things about the deep ocean floor. Scientists are very curious people. They were curious about what was down there under all that water, so they started measuring everything they could, just to find out. What they found were the mid-ocean ridges with their earthquakes and volcanoes. And they found lots of evidence that the oceans were brand new at their centers and older and older going out to the edges. In that way, they discovered the process of "sea floor spreading" and, once they knew that, they suddenly understood how continents can drift apart to make new oceans.
       When I was in college, all these ideas were just being discovered and it really sounded exciting to me. Besides, sailing around the oceans sounded like a great adventure. The combination sounded perfect: to be able to have fun adventures and, at the same time, to be working and earning money and making a contribution to the world. I started studying geology right away, and when I finished college I applied to go to graduate school at Scripps Institute of Oceanography to study for my doctorate.
       When I got to Scripps, I joined a research group that was using very fancy instruments that we towed on a cable behind the ship, very near the sea floor. At first I was one of the slaves, just doing what they said to do, marking records and keeping track of things, and of course, studying marine geology. Pretty soon I had learned how it all works and found myself running my very own expeditions. If you just jump in and pay attention and do your very best, it's amazing what can happen!
       The most exotic part of my career was when I was working with the tiny submarine "Alvin". (It is so small that three of us and all our instruments and oxgen and lunch just barely fit inside. You can't be claustrophobic if you want to work in Alvin!) After we had studied the mid-ocean ridges with all the instruments we could drag from the ships, we used the submarine to go down and study the sea floor directly. The ocean is very deep (about 2 miles deep) so the pressure is too high down there for us to swim out, but we could look out the portholes and collect samples with the mechanical arms and check out things that we just hadn't been able to figure out from looking at the photographs and sonar records. It is pitch black down there and the water is freezing cold, so we used lots of lights and wore big puffy parkas (which made it even more crowded in there).
       The most exciting things we found with Alvin were the hot springs that were around the new, hot volcanoes. We found super-hot springs gushing out of the sea floor and they were pretty dramatic and a little scarey. Even more stange were the the animals that lived around the springs. A whole bunch of brand new kinds of animals were there, living in that warm water in the pitch black of the deep sea. There were giant white tubes (6-10 feet long) with bright red worms living in them and giant clams (1 foot long) and octopuses and lots of crabs and giant anemones and lots of slimey things. Wierd!
       These days I don't go to sea so much. I got tired of being sea sick and I have a family that I don't like to leave for too long at a time. My research these days is mostly on the land, figuring out how the San Andreas fault got going and how the Rocky Mountains and all the other wonderful landscapes of our country were formed.
       I am a professor at the University of California, here in Santa Barbara, and I really enjoy teaching the students about the Earth. Our Earth is very beautiful and a little more fragile than we used to think. It will be the job of these students (and of you and your friends, too) to help humanity learn to live in balance with the Earth's life-giving systems. I am sure that you will do it. We humans are really good at figuring out what to do, once we realize that there is a problem to solve. So don't worry too much but do learn all you can about the Earth and its atmosphere, weather, and waters. Then, when the time is right, you'll know what to do.
       Plate tectonics is a really good way to start learning about the Earth. It explains why most of the earthquakes and volcanoes happen. It explains why there are ocean basins and continents and mountain belts. It makes it fun to look at the world map. I hope you have a good world map to study and enjoy, or even better is a globe. If you don't have a globe, see if your parents will get you one. I recommend that you get a "Physical Globe", one that concentrates on the earth features (mountains, rivers and river flood plains, ocean floor features, etc.) instead of (or in addition to) a "political" globe.
       I wish you good luck on your project and in your life. And please take good care of our beautiful and precious planet.

[People]  [Research]  [Resources]  [Alumni] 
[Life]  [Graduate]  [Undergrad]  [Outreach]