The Map That changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology

by Simon Winchester

Published by HarperCollins

256 pages, 2001

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The Beguiling Magic and Mystery

Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman 


Simon Winchester has done it again. He has followed his popular history of the OED, The Professor and the Madman, with the story of another almost-forgotten English innovator. In his gracious seductive style, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology tells the fascinating story of one ordinary man, born in the right place, his passion nourished by the ground beneath his feet, who sees "a hidden fourth dimension."

As a child, the orphaned son of a blacksmith raised on an Oxfordshire farm, William Smith used fossils for marbles and worked in the fields where ammonite poundstones were picked to balance the butter scale. Yet, he alone was fascinated enough by what he observed and collected to take it further. He studied, hypothesized, experimented, confirmed his theories and applied what he knew. He documented the strata, drew charts and finally maps of every outcrop he had inspected, connecting the dots, coloring in the contours that represented geologic time. His discoveries offered an explanation for natural phenomena that had fascinated humans for millennia. They also ultimately challenged the prevailing literal interpretation of creation as outlined in the Bible and laid the groundwork for Darwin's Theory of the Origin of Species. Yet Smith's contribution was unsung and his work plagiarized. He was snubbed, allegedly because of his lower class yeoman stock, and he was hounded for money. As Winchester presents it, Smith's story is one of redemption, although it is society-at-large that changes, redeeming itself and finally celebrating its hero. The truth is revealed, the significance of the work recognized and the honors come forth while the man of revolutionary vision is still able to receive them

The tale is well told, tacked to the physical reality of "the map," moving back and forth in time as geologists do. There are gaps in the "understory" and the journalist resists filling in the blanks in his sources with fiction or speculative psychology. William Smith is human and makes human mistakes. Our curiosity about the mad wife remains unsated. Nor do we understand the underlying causes of the hero's problems with money. Yet in a sense, these shortcomings add mystery, leaving us to wonder and increasing the book's appeal. What details were expurgated from Smith's diaries? Was the name of the woman admitted to debtor's prison the same day as Smith merely coincidence? Did his conjugal arrangements have any impact upon his exclusion from society?

Winchester also resists padding the story with allusions to celebrities of the time. He does mention the depression that followed the Battle of Waterloo but nothing else -- not the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, Lord Nelson or the Duke. A bit more about the historical context could be illuminating. England was at war. A few miles away across the channel, noble and royal heads had rolled. Did this make the nation even more determined to celebrate the supportive class relationships of the sheep-shearing fairs, of the rural lifestyle and economy that was so much a part of the new scientific progress enflaming the land? Or did it make society more fearful of the landless, the yeomen, or of itinerant tradesmen walking the nation for work?

One of the themes of William Smith's story seems to be the triumph over snobbery. Yet the book suffers from the same taint -- the repeated assertion that smart people live in the city and the declaration that fossils "seemed overnight to become the pastime of the dull, and then steadily to evolve into what amateur paleontology is now: no more than the mark of the nerd." I looked for irony here in the off-putting comments, but it must have been edited out. This literary quest for "cool" leaves the discouraging realization that, in such gratuitous negativity, snobbery lives. Our world is no better than it was 200 years ago when William Smith was denied credit for his discoveries because of the dirt on his hands.

Yet, I found myself nodding and smiling often as I read The Map That Changed the World. Nodding with recognition. Anyone who has ever "collected," or traveled with a collector, knows the enthusiastic stops to tap the rockface, to bag the samples, to shelve them, to reveal them nervously to suitably appreciative viewers whose response will not turn them to mere stone. Fossils and rocks have much to teach about the connection between place and time, between now and then. Winchester does redeem himself in the linking chapter describing his own first fossil and his travels along the Jurassic outcrops that had spoken to Smith. "... [T]he little fossil was very much more than simply a four-ounce reminder that tropical oceans had existed in the England of 178 million years ago. It was a symbol also of the beguiling magic and mystery of the science of modern geology, and provided a cozy link between the past and the present, between the extremes of the ultramodern and the ultra-ancient."

Personally, I'm a sucker too for the hands-on. The cover of this book is a multi-folded reproduction of The Map That Changed the World. It is warm and beautiful. And it all seems so simple, both the geology of the sceptered isle and the revolutionary ideas Smith extrapolated from his close observations. It is hard to believe that the scientific study of the Earth's story is barely 200 years old, that patterns which seem so obvious now had not been noticed before. | October 2001


J. M. Bridgeman is a contributing editor at Suite 101 as well as January Magazine.