Book Review -- The Map that Changed the World


The Map That Changed the World

William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology
Simon Winchester
Harper Collins pp.301


I borrowed this book from Jean’s cousin, Tom Harrison. The band was in Pennsylvania to play a gig for the Wellsboro Community Concert series and we stayed with Tom and Carolynn, his wife, for several most enjoyable days. I’m not sure how the subject came up but at some point we started conversing about this book so I arranged to borrow it and read it when I got a chance.
In his usual style -- if The Madman and the Professor is anything to go by -- Winchester writes a great tale while also overstating his case somewhat. The fact is that the map in question didn’t change the world but was one of many pieces of information -- most notably Darwin’s Origin of the Species -- that affected how the world was seen.
William Smith was an Oxfordshire engineer, largely self-taught, who worked mostly on canal-building and drainage schemes. In both of these endeavors he excelled and, at one point in his life, made a very good living. He was also intensely curious about the fossils that he encountered as he went about digging into the Earth. It was he who eventually linked certain types of fossils with certain types of rock strata and over time he compiled a geological map of Britain. This not only had huge practical implications when it came to activities such as mining and canal building, but also meant that the eternal verities such as the age of the Earth had to be reconsidered.
At the time, the Biblical account of creation was taken quite literally and it had been ascertained by one James Ussher (while he was bishop of Armagh) that the world began at 9 a.m. on Monday, October 23, 4004 B.C. Smith’s findings and resultant map suggested a planet that was much older than that and, of course, cast doubt on the literal truth of the Bible. Still, many notions about the origins of our world were changing at the time and Smith’s contribution, while important, was not as shattering as the title of the book might suggest.
Much is also made in the book of how badly Smith was treated at the time and how, at one point, he was reduced to penury. Well, it’s true that he seems to have been widely plagiarized -- not uncommon at the time -- and shunned by an aristocratic, dilettante Geological Society that was no more than a dinner club for rich fossil collectors. Frankly, there’s nothing surprising there and Smith seems to have brought many of his troubles on himself. He habitually lived beyond his means and missed deadlines set by his publisher and even though his contribution went unrecognized for many years, in the end he was given full credit and treated generously.
What confounds me about the book is how did Smith go about making this map. I know that from some work he did in mines that he ascertained that certain fossils are to be found in certain rocks. I know that he covered much ground, literally, collecting fossils and from these fossils identifying the rock that lay beneath the surface but I don’t get a picture of how he did this. Britain is over eighty thousand square miles. Even if he only took one sample from each square mile ... Where is he going to find fossils at the drop of a hat? I could go outside today and couldn’t find a fossil if my life depended on it. I would have liked a clearer picture of what was involved in the making of the map.
Still, Winchester, knows how to tell a story. He may exaggerate the drama but that’s what much good storytelling is all about.

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