The official blurb says it the best: "In 1793, a canal digger named William Smith made a startling discovery. He found that by tracing the placement of fossils, which he uncovered in his excavations, one could follow layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell -- clear across England and, indeed, clear across the world -- making it possible, for the first time ever, to draw a chart of the hidden underside of the earth. Determined to expose what he realized was the landscape's secret fourth dimension, Smith spent twenty-two years piecing together the fragments of this unseen universe to create an epochal and remarkably beautiful hand-painted map. But instead of receiving accolades and honors, he ended up in debtors' prison, the victim of plagiarism, and virtually homeless for ten years more. Finally, in 1831, this quiet genius -- now known as the father of modern geology -- received the Geological Society of London's highest award and King William IV offered him a lifetime pension.
The Map That Changed the World is a very human tale of endurance and achievement, of one man's dedication in the face of ruin. With a keen eye and thoughtful detail, Simon Winchester unfolds the poignant sacrifice behind this world-changing discovery. MY COMMENTS:
Simon Winchester had William Smith's diaries to help him compile this detailed account of one man's struggle to open up the science of stratigraphy (geology). What should have been a joyous discovery, turned into one man's ceaseless war against his own humiliation and ill fortune, forced to waste his energies raging against the cheating and class discrimination that seemed, time and again, to frustrate him.
The author kept the interest in the tale alive with his conversational tone throughout. Statements like these, brought a smile to my face:
"It was left to the genial Irish prelate James Ussher, while he was bishop of Armagh, to fix the date with absolute precision. According to his workings, which he managed to convince his clerical colleagues were impeccably accurate, God had created the world and all its creatures in one swift and uninterrupted process of divine mechanics that began on the dot of the all-too-decent hour of 9 A.M., on a Monday, October 23, 4004 B.C."
Suffice to say, William Smith's birth, on March 23, 1769, in the cottage on the edge of the green in Churchill, Oxfordshire, took place, according to their implacably held beliefs, exactly 5,772 years, four months, and sixteen days after the creation of the world. He was the first son of the local blacksmith in the hamlet of Churchill.
It is within this social mileu that William Smith, with his interest in fossils and rocks, would draw up the first geological map of England and change the world of science forever.
"It was a document that was to change the face of a science-indeed, to create a whole new science-to set in train a series of scientific movements that would lead, eventually, to the inquiries of Charles Darwin, to the birth of evolutionary theory, and to the burgeoning of an entirely new way for human beings to view their world and their universe. The inevitable collision between the new rationally based world of science and the old ecclesiastical, faith-directed world of belief was about to occur-and in the vanguard of the new movement, both symbolically and actually, was the great map, and now this equally enormous atlas that John Cary of the Strand was about to publish, and the revolutionary thinking that lay behind their making."
A fascinating biography of a brilliant man. He did not have class, or money, or the right address, but he had the nerve to persist and win.
Captivating. Entertaining. Excellent.
To view a bigger version of the map CLICK HERE