550: The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester

by Gerard


550.92: Winchester, Simon. The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. New York: Harper, 2009. 301 pp. ISBN 978-0-06-176790-6.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 500: Science
  • 550: General works on earth science
  • +92: Biography

The world is an ever-shifting, ever-changing place. Millions upon millions of years of plate tectonics, volcanic eruptions, and eroding forces have brought to the earth its current form. Only recently have we been able to figure out just how it happened. In many ways, we owe a lot of our current geological knowledge to a coal mine surveyor from Oxfordshire, William Smith. Simon Winchester’s The Map That Changed the World is look into a the life and work of a man whose debts landed him in jail, but whose work has left us indebted to him.

William Smith, born in 1769, was a bright boy and quickly became a land surveyor, working for estate holders and canal companies. One day, while working for a coal company, he came upon the realization that certain rock strata existed in the same places all throughout the country. And if you inspected closer, you would find the fossils from a certain rock layer in that same layer on the other side of the country. He collected fossils and rock samples from all over Britain in an effort to support his hypothesis. In 1815, he published a vibrant, perfect 8.5-foot by 6-foot map of the country, showing all the geological features and rock strata. Unfortunately for him, he was neither a gentleman nor a member of the Geological Society, so his work was seen as amateur and consequently plagiarized and profited from by those who had the means to do so. Luckily, a rich benefactor, Sir John Johnstone, recognized his scientific worth and championed his cause and by 1831 he was admitted into the Geological Society of London and awarded the first Wollaston Medal, becoming the father of English geology.

There are some who are not partial to Simon Winchester’s flowery prose and decidedly British approach to scholarship and history, but not me. He could write about the history of paint drying techniques and I would give him the benefit of the doubt. He pulls together the scant details of Smith’s life with gusto and panache. To flesh out some of the sparser bits, Winchester goes on an expedition around Britain to experience the geology for himself. The work of William Smith deserves to be honored and now the Geological Society gives out an award in his name every year. I really enjoyed this one and hope more people discover the scientists who have toiled throughout history. Without them, the world would indeed be a much different place. A pleasant read.