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Book review: The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology
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Book review
 
 
The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester, HarperCollins (2001), 329p. ISBN 0-06-019361-1. Illustrated. Hardcover, $26.
Peter-Noel Webb

A few pages into freshman geology textbooks is William Smith, usually in a paragraph sandwiched between the 18th centuryís Hutton and Werner, and the 19th centuryís Lyell, Darwin and their contemporaries. William Smithís 70 years (1769-1839) spanned an interval during which the geological sciences, particularly in the United Kingdom, underwent significant advancement, and he has long been credited with playing a major role in this transition. Charles Lyellís Principles of Geology (1830 and later editions) provides one of the earliest evaluations of William Smithís contributions. Subsequent insights into Smithís work include papers in 1839 and 1844 by nephew, field assistant, geologist and Oxford professor John Phillips.

The geological world remembers Smith today for his contributions to surveying, canal engineering, stratigraphy, coal geology, paleontology and geological mapping ó particularly for his 1815 publication of the first comprehensive geological map of the United Kingdom, Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland. Charles Lyell also observed that Smithís imprudent generosity with data and ideas nourished the ambitions and plagiarism of unscrupulous contemporary ďscientistsĒ who enjoyed more acceptable and loftier social connections.

Around this two-century-old window of geological knowledge, scientific and religious dogma, human triumph, failure, despair, intrigue and social inequity, Simon Winchester weaves an account of the life and times of William Smith, under the banner The Map That Changed The World. Winchesterís sources include in-depth discussions with William Smith historian and biographer Hugh Torrens, as well as Smithís diaries, maps and other materials at Oxford University, the Geological Society of London, the Royal Geographical Society and the Natural History Museum London. Winchester retraced Smithís pedestrian and coach travels in England with visits to pertinent geological sites, museums and former residences. Experience as a geology undergraduate at Oxford during the mid-1960s allows Winchester to approach the geological aspects of the account with a degree of familiarity.

The literary devices employed will be familiar to readers of Winchesterís earlier book, The Professor and The Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Well researched and documented history and science are intricately interwoven with Winchesterís biographical style of immersing himself in the mind and body of the principal character, as well as developing the personalities of those with whom Smith interacted and attempting to re-create the events and details of the specific moments of two centuries ago. At times, it seems Winchester interviewed Smith and even accompanied him on his travels. The book includes detailed accounts of English regional geology, local stratigraphy and paleontology. Winchesterís personal interpretations of the man William Smith, presumably developed from diaries, field notes and other sources, assist in keeping the account moving forward.

Winchesterís style of storytelling, however, often involves major digression from the central plot. For instance, Chapter 11 (A Jurassic Interlude) is as much to do with the authorís formative adolescent years in the 1950s as with William Smith. The author is addicted to inserting obscure words ó readers should keep the Oxford English Dictionary close at hand. Perhaps Winchester is attracted to the varying fortunes of dynamic, productive and lonely intellectuals incarcerated in Great Britainís mental health and penal institutions.

It becomes tempting to draw similarities between Winchesterís Dr. Minor, the madman of his earlier book, and Dr. Smith. Both gentlemen experienced severe obstacles through much of their lives, exhibited major strengths and weaknesses, and were alien to the society in which they functioned. Both eventually triumphed and were accorded national and international recognition in their twilight and post mortem years.

Winchester does a thorough job of developing the essential details of William Smithís personality, portraying him as energetic, ambitious, modest, stubborn, visionary, self-taught, gregarious among both the learned and unlearned, driven, and rugged. Smith sought and maintained personal contacts among significant politicians, industrialists, gentry, clergy and geologists of the day. Lack of formal education and omission from the ranks of the rich and titled obliged him to seek patronage throughout his life. Sir Joseph Banks, botanist on James Cookís first expedition and President of the Royal Society, proved to be one of his more significant patrons in the years before the appearance of Smithís geological map of Great Britain. Smith dedicated the 1815 map to Banks.

Winchester also develops the close working relationship between William Smith and John Cary, a prominent cartographer, engraver and atlas publisher of late 18th- and early 19th-century Great Britain. While the author focuses on the 1815 geological map of Great Britain, he does make passing mention of the impressive Smith-Cary county sheets, some of which were published in 1819 and 1820 (with facsimile printings by the British Natural History Museum in 1974).

Winchester proceeds to weave an intricate and intriguing mix of William Smithís daily perambulations and his views on stratigraphic concepts and stratal superposition, lithostratigraphy and formation nomenclature, biostratigraphy, paleontology, faunal succession and extinction, regional stratigraphy and structural geology, and subsurface and engineering geology. But the student of the history of earth sciences who craves insight into William Smithís more philosophic influences on the evolution of the earth sciences during and after his most productive years (1790-1820) will be disappointed in Winchesterís discourse, and will need to await the appearance of Hugh Torrensí in-depth treatment of this important transitional period in English science.

In 1815, the year Smithís geological map of Great Britain was published, James Hutton had been dead 18 years, Charles Lyell was 20, and Charles Darwin was a mere child of 6 years. William Smithís work extended Huttonian earth history philosophy and helped lay the foundations for the development of the geological time scale and concepts of organic evolution by Lyell, Darwin, Murchison, Buckland and Sedgwick over the next several decades. Winchester does relate in some detail that the three latter geologists rewarded Smithís contributions by sponsoring his belated admission to the Geological Society of London in 1831.

Comprehensive and informative footnotes and indexing support the book. A modern time scale and an eight-page geological glossary provide additional resources. The book also features reproductions of critical maps and the 1815 map as an expandable dust jacket. But a  likeness taken from the William Smith Medal is the only glimpse of the central character. A photograph or two from paintings and busts might have helped flesh out the image of the man himself. Furthermore, biographical writing can become disjointed when punctuated by endless reference to specific days, months and years. This reviewer struggled to piece events into some semblance of chronological order, and an appendix of chronologically ordered principal events would have been helpful.

Although Smithís prominent place in the history of geology was secured long ago, earth science historians and geologists the world over will find Winchesterís biographical and scientific portrayal of Smith of considerable interest. Given its popularity, this book has the potential to serve a valuable public relations role for the geological sciences at large. However, the last word on William Smith is still awaited.

Webb teaches in the Department of Geological Sciences at Ohio State University.



On the shelf

Higher than Everest: An Adventurerís Guide to the Solar System by Paul Hodge, David J. Vaughan and Brian J. Skinner. Prentice Hall (2001). 256 p. ISBN 0-521-65133-6. Hardcover, $27.95.

Californiaís Earthquakes: Science, Risk, and the Politics of Hazard Mitigation by Carl-Henry Geschwind. The Johns Hopkins University Press (2001). 337 p. ISBN 0-8018-6596-4. Hardcover, $45.

Physical Hydrology, second edition, by S. Lawrence Dingman. Prentice Hall (2002). 646 p. ISBN 0-13-099695-5. Cloth with CD-ROM, $80.00.

Mantle Convection in the Earth and Planets by Gerald Schubert, Donald L. Turcotte and Peter Olson. Cambridge University Press (2001). 940 p. ISBN 0-521-79836-1. Paperback, $74.95.

Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geology, seventh edition, by Edward Tarbuck and Frederick Lutgens. Prentice Hall (2002). 670 p. ISBN 0-13-092025-8. Paperback with CD-ROM, $76.00.



Maps

U.S. Geological Survey

I-2673. ALASKA. Geologic map of the Arctic quadrangle, Alaska by W.P. Brosg, H.N. Reiser, J.T. Dutro, Jr., R.L. Detterman and I.L. Tailleur. 2001. Scale 1:200,000. One color sheet and one black and white sheet.

I-2693. MARS. Geologic map of the MTM 25047 and 20047 quadrangles, Central Chryse Planitia/Viking 1 Lander Site, Mars by L.S. Crumpler, R.A. Craddock and J.C. Aubele. 2001. Prepared for NASA. Scale 1:1,004,000. One color sheet. $7.

I-2727. MARS. Geologic map of the Tempe-Mareotis Region of Mars by H.J. Moore. Prepared for NASA. 2001. Scale 1:1,004,000. One color sheet and 23 pages of accompanying text. $7.

I-2735. COLORADO. Maps showing the extent of mining, locations of mine shafts, adits, air shafts, and bedrock faults, and thickness of overburden above abandoned coal mines in the Boulder-Weld coal field, Boulder, Weld, and Adams Counties, Colorado, compiled by S.B. Roberts, J.L. Hynes and C.L. Woodward. Prepared in cooperation with the Colorado Geological Survey. 2001. Scale 1:48,000. One color sheet. $7.

MF-2327-B. NEVADA. Map of steep structures in part of the southern Toquima Range and adjacent areas, Nye County, Nevada by Daniel R. Shawe. 2001. Scale 1:48,000. One color sheet. Available free at greenwood.cr.usgs.gov/pub/mf-maps/mf-2327-b/

To order USGS maps: Contact USGS Information Services, P.O. Box 25286, Denver, CO 80225. Phone: 1-888-ASK-USGS (1-888-275-8747).

Peter Lyttle compiles the Maps section and is acting coordinator for the USGS National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program. E-mail: plyttle@usgs.gov



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