A review of “The Map That Changed The World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology” by Simon Winchester.
Winchester is an extraordinarily prolific writer with at least 18 full-length titles to his name, most of which have been very well received, and scores of magazine and TV articles. I have previously read his “The Professor and the Madman” (about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary) and “Krakatoa.” He has developed a non-fiction style that is eminently readable while packing in an immensity of well-researched material.
His story of William Smith, the low-born farmer’s son who first understood the stratification of geological layers and, more importantly, the value of the specific fossils found in each layer, is brilliantly told. Smith’s trials and tribulations, including a period in debtors’ prison — many of which were a direct result of the English class system in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are described in detail, as is his ultimate triumph and celebration as an old man.
In between this very human story, Winchester weaves a clear portrait of the science that Smith discovered — the lie of the ancient rocks across England — and the great hand-coloured Geological Map that he finally published in 1815. An item of particular interest was the use of his discoveries by those — the majority — who still believed that the earth was just 4,000 years old, while many scientists quietly, secretly, realized that Smith had shown the earth to be a far more ancient object.
A very good read.