The Map That Changed The World

“The Map that Changed the World”  – William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, by Simon Winchester, Perennial Books, 2001

“Love and Intrigue in 1800s Stratigraphy”

So what map would that be? Mercator’s projection of 1524, which depicted the three-dimensional Earth in two dimensions, thus enabling mariners to travel more easily in a straight line, but distorted so much of the planet’s land mass? Or Tycho Brahe’s 1660 chart of the Universe, which in a strictly geocentric climate was the first to hint that the other planets revolved around the Sun? In Simon Winchester’s view, the award goes to William Smith’s 1815 geological map of England and Wales – the first of its kind. The claim is made because the insight that drove Smith – the identification and prediction of patterns of geological strata by virtue of the varieties of fossil discovered in them – was key to a field of study that helped nurture Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. But Daniel Boorstin’s famous Discoverers does not even include a reference to Smith, the credit for the explanation of consistent geological forces being given solely to Charles Lyell. Winchester’s aim is clearly to make Smith’s name as famous as that of Mercator.

The current fashion for popular biography of underappreciated scientists probably started with Dava Sobel’s Longitude of 1995. Winchester’s bestselling contribution is a well-constructed addition to the genre. He shows how Smith overcame his humble beginnings (his father was an Oxfordshire blacksmith who died when Smith was only seven) by his fascination for rocks, and the guidance and support he received from his uncle. He gained skills in surveying, and became an expert on the analysis of rock formations as they related to the placement of mines, and the digging of canals, developing his ideas on stratigraphy ( = “the geological study of strata and their succession”) from close observations of England’s unique waves of outcrops. The first version of his map was created in 1801, but his ability to sell his ideas (and hence the funding of the project) was frustrated by his poor time management, his awkwardness in writing, and marriage problems (his wife went mad). He was in fact plagiarized by the first President of the Royal Geological Society, George Bellas Greenough, and even spent time in a debtor’s prison before getting his due recognition. When short of money, he was offered a job in North Carolina to survey rivers: his declination of it was surely our loss.

Winchester has a degree in geology, and explains the subject well. He overall writes fluently, with little of the empathetic creativity (“Smith must have wondered…”) that often mars such works. He frames Smith’s endeavors clearly in their social context, and is crisp in his criticism of the religious dogma that resisted ideas attributing to the Earth an age much greater than the Church asserted for it. The author does however show an irritating habit of interjecting irrelevant asides, as if he had nowhere else to dispose of his nuggets of research. For example, he observes in a footnote that “James Sowerby is quite possibly the only scientist to have both a flower and a whale named after him”. “Quiet possibly”? Gad, sir! Can’t you tell us unequivocally, yes or no?

While the map itself is fascinating, and beautiful, and reflects the tireless determination that Smith must have put into it, traipsing up and down the country, its impact appears a little overstated. Experts have suggested that Smith’s contribution was not quite as singular as Winchester claims. And indeed, in this part of the world, there are still “unchanged” people who reject, as a threat to biblical truth, the type of painstaking evidence that Smith collected.  So the title should probably be reserved for the inevitable movie of the book. Yes, I can see Will Smith (who else?) playing his namesake, the rube who made good, with Hugh Grant in the role of his foppish adversary, Greenough. I can visualize the byline: “Love and Intrigue in 1800s Stratigraphy!”  Oh, I smell Oscars here!

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