Winchester: The Map That Changed The World

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Simon Winchester, The Map that Changed the World : William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. New York : HarperCollins, 2001. xix + 329 pages; illustrated, with glossary, "Sources and Recommended Reading", and index.

William Smith (1769—1839) has a remarkably unprepossessing name for one who had such a remarkable influence on science. Sometimes known as the "Father of Geology", the title might be debatable but the part he played in the birth of the new science certainly deserves wider recognition, which Simon Winchester adopts as the goal of his book. He makes a good job of it, too.

The time Smith was born into may seem less distant in thought than it really is. Winchester establishes a good portrait of the scientific milieu of the time to provide the right backdrop against which we can see for ourselves Smith's accomplishments.

So even though William Smith was brought up in a society still in the firm grip of purblind churchly certainty, his scientific training—such as it was—allowed for a measure of liberality. James Ussher [who had calculated, based on the Bible, the date of creation as 23 October 4004 BC] was still there on the margins, to confuse; to deny his beliefs was to risk being branded a heretic. But in the later decades of the eighteenth century it was also possible, and moreover acceptable, for a thinking student to suppose that life, far older than humankind and perhaps far stranger than humankind could imagine, might once have existed on the planet

The corollary to such thinking was that the earth must in turn be far, far older than James Ussher had supposed. That, for the time being, had to remain unsaid. But that it could be thought, and that there was evidence to prove it, was for the young Oxfordshire man, a liberating realization—a realization that helped in no uncertain manner to foster the new science that he was soon, and at first almost unwittingly, to help establish. [. 41]

Smith worked in surveying, mining, and draining and routing water, work that took him to different parts of England in surroundings where holes were being dug. He took an interest in fossils; at the time, fossils were just being recognized as being the remains of ancient animals. He also started to take note of the layers of earth that one could see as it was dug through. One of his earliest insights was realizing that the same fossils always occurred in the same layers of earth.

And as his systematic collecting proceeded, and as the size and quality of his collection was daily enhanced, so his theory was confirmed and reconfirmed: A layer of rock, it now seemed incontrovertibly true, could be positively and invariably identified simply and solely by the fossils that were to be found within it. [pp. 118—119]

He spent much time arranging his fossils in the order that they were laid down in the earth. He realized that the layers of earth had been laid down uniformly throughout England and that different surface geology in the country resulted from the tilted strata being cut off to reveal different layers in different places.

He kept this secret for some time while he sorted out the details in his head. When he finally shared it with close friends, it was in amazing detail. In one evening on the night of 11 June 1799, the "Table of Strata" written down by Smith and his colleagues Joseph Townsend and Benjamin Richardson. Our author shares his feelings for the importance to the nascent science of geology of this moment.

For the first time the earth had a provable history, a written record that paid no heed or obeisance to religious teaching and dogma, that declared its independence from the kind of faith that is no more than the blind acceptance of absurdity. A science—an elemental, basic science that would in due course allow mankind to exploit the almost limitless treasures of the underworld—had at last broken free from the age-old constraints of doctrine and canonical instruction.

From now on—armed with a new knowledge and understanding of how matters were arranged below the earth's surface—human beings could begin to explore their planet from a different perspective, and with an intellectual freedom that would in time permit them to look for and then to find astonishing things. The reverberations of that late-evening meeting can be felt distinctly down all the years. Each time a new oilfield is opened, or new gold is added to a reserve, or when more platinum or cerium or iron or manganese is won from the earth's crust, it is perhaps appropriate to remember these three men. To remember them, and to savor the irony that, while Townsend and Richardson worked that night under the leadership of William Smith, whose agnosticism was well known, they themselves were churchmen—making this particular bid for intellectual freedom an act of brave defiance, and one of which their bishops would doubtless disapprove. yet though the Church may have briefly frowned, all humankind went on to benefit. [pp. 134—135]

What follows is a human and scientific drama. Smith, after a great deal of work, published in 1815 the first geological map of England. It was a great success in many ways, but it didn't spell immediate success for Smith.

Science at the time was still very much a sport of gentlemen and Smith had the misfortune of having been born in the wrong social class to be accepted among gentlemen scientists, despite his efforts to adopt the necessary lifestyle. That approach eventually landed him in debtor's prison. His map was unscrupulously copied by others without credit, and his efforts were ignored at the time.

Years later his contributions were finally recognized by the Geological Society of London, the same group who had originally spurned him, when they awarded him their first Wollaston medal. A copy of the map he had originally printed still hangs in the Societies house in London.

Winchester's book is a very deft blending of the fortunes and misfortunes of Smith's career, his progress of geological discovery, and the nature of the society and scientists bringing shape to the new science of geology. Beyond just biography, Winchester tries to answer questions like: What led to Smith's drawing his map then? Why Smith? Why in England? Some of it is heart-rending, some of it is triumphant.

One wonders, at the outset, how so much scientific history could have been bound up in the fortunes of this one individual, William Smith. After reading the book, the reasons are much clearer, and it makes for a very interesting story.

-- Notes by JNS

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