Review of The Map That Changed the World: William Smith & the Birth of Modern Geology by

Book cover for The Map That Changed the World: William Smith & the Birth of Modern Geology

Rocks. They’re old.

Thank you for reading my review.

OK, I guess I’ll go into slightly more detail. In his phenomenal A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson devotes slightly less than a page to William Smith and the first geological map of Britain. This is likely a result of Bryson (or his editors) striving in vain to meet that promise of being “short”. Bryson promises us a more “comprehensive” account in The Map That Changed the World. I didn’t actually find this book through A Short History of Nearly Everything; I only saw the reference when I went back to look up what Bryson has to say about Smith. One day I casually stumbled upon the story of William Smith, fossils, and rocks, and this seemed like the sensible book to buy in order to learn more. This guess largely turned out to be correct, with some minor quibbles and caveats.

Much like Longitude, another non-fiction book that I read recently, The Map That Changed the World is a semi-biographical look at the contributions of one man to a field of scientific study—in this case, geology. By definition it attributes to William Smith an importance that might be overstated, in the sense that English geology seemed to be doing fine without him and probably would have continued doing fine if he hadn’t come on the scene. Yet it’s true that Smith’s contributions are both important and, considering his background and his often penurious circumstances, all the more outstanding. If one wants to examine how one individual affected a scientific discipline, few choices would be more appropriate than William Smith.

Simon Winchester begins by describing Smith’s release from debtor’s prison before jumping back to his origins and start as a surveyor in rural England. As with most endeavours, Smith’s come to fruition through a careful combination of skill, hard work, and luck. Sometimes he’s in the right place at the right time to get a job that lets him travel around England, looking at layers of rock—such is the case with his position surveying for the new Somerset Canal. As Winchester unfolds Smith’s life before us, we get to see how the economics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries played a role in shaping scientific inquiry. The vast, industrial scope of coal mining gave Smith both the access and the reason to delve deep beneath the Earth and look at layers of strata. More importantly, the rich upper class’ interest in being able to find coal before digging up their property provided an economic interest in Smith’s studies. Although it certainly seems like Smith was both clever and dedicated, I can’t help but form the impression that he also happened to be born at the right time, and in the right country. England, Winchester explains, was ripe for a revolution in scientific thinking. And Smith’s discovery that fossils are the key indicators of a rock’s type and age would begin that revolution.

If Smith is correct, then the Earth is not six thousand years old. It’s far, far older. This was not the popular view in Smith’s time and would not be for some time after his death—as Winchester is careful to point out, Smith himself did not care to go so far as to posit how or why stratification occurs the way it does. He just reported what he had observed, and used it to make useful predictions. But it was a start, a beginning in a chain of reasoning that would lead geologists to speculate that the Earth’s past extends into the millions and billions of years, and culminate in Charles Darwin publishing a controversial treatise about the origins of humankind.

The way that Smith and so many scientists clung to the Biblical interpretation of the origins and age of the Earth stayed on my mind as I read this book. Although I’m an atheist, I do not view science and religion as irreconcilable. However, people who subscribe to fundamentalism but also claim to be adherents of science do puzzle me. There are, to put it lightly, contradictions between these two schools of thought. And with science, as with fundamentalism, it seems to me that it is hypocritical to pick and choose. What makes science so enduring, so potent—dare I say, so sexy—is that everything is interconnected in incredibly complex and interesting ways. So Smith’s ideas lead inexorably to this idea that the Earth is much older than six thousand years. Our ability to calculate, now, things like the speed and direction of motion of planets and satellites and even stars lets us “turn the clock back”, so to speak, and look at the solar system thousands or even millions of years ago. Fundamentalists reject all these claims and come up with very creative ways of doing so. But many watch television. Many use cars. Many wear glasses and take medicine. These are all a result of the same science that tells us the Earth is ancient and the stars themselves gave us life. How can one accept all the more mundane marvels but reject the other ones and still claim to be consistent? (Obviously it’s very easy if one does not claim consistency, but for some reason people get offended when you go up to them, call them a hypocrite, and begin itemizing contradictions in their personal belief system….)

But I digress. The Map That Changed the World got me thinking about science, the nature of science and how we do science, as any good science history book should do. It also chronicles the difficulties Smith faced as he began working on his geological map. Some of these were difficulties of his own making—he lived as if he were well off and had a stable income, and he married a wife who was an emotional and financial burden. Some were a product of the still-rigid class system, wherein Smith was an uneducated country bumpkin, and upstart whose contributions should be overlooked whenever possible and stolen if not. The story of how George Greenough blocked Smith from membership in the fledgling Geological Society—which was, after all, just supposed to be a dinner club for gentlemen—and then plagiarized from Smith’s map to produce one of lesser utility on behalf of the Society is exactly the type of dirty scientific feud I love to read about. And Winchester delivers on all of these accounts.

I also loved reading about Smith’s dedication to this singular task. He travelled all across England and Wales to compile observations and evidence for this map! Granted, England isn’t quite as large as, say, Canada—but he did this on foot or by coach. And he had to go into the field, dig into the mud, get dirty, day after day for decades in order to get the data he required. For that alone he deserves a medal! A note about the map at the beginning of this book remarks that its similarity to modern maps is all the more impressive because it is the work of one man, whereas modern maps are the work of large, coordinated teams. This is a keen observation. Despite being terrible with money, unlucky in love, and reluctant to publish until it was almost too late, William Smith was a profoundly hard worker. I’m not quite certain I’m as eager to buy into Winchester’s attempts to turn this into a discussion over the gulf between fieldworkers and theorists, but at the very least, it made me, as an armchair mathematician extraordinaire, feel very lazy!

There are a few aspects of Winchester’s writing style that marred my otherwise unqualified enjoyment of this book. He is overly-enamoured of the passive voice. It kept reappearing, feeling very out of place by dint of Winchester’s attempt to give his account a sweeping, narrative arc. Also, while Winchester is very diligent about noting when we have evidence available to us and when something is mere speculation, he does like to indulge in considerable parenthetical digressions about what might have motivated Smith to do one thing or another. That is to say, he injects too many of his own conjectures and opinions about Smith for my own liking. I’m not sure how to say this without saying I would have preferred a drier account. I kept comparing Winchester unfavourably to Bryson, who always seems to manage to make the subject of his writing the focus of any sentence rather than his own thoughts on the matter.

This is a nicely designed book, with some cool illustrations, and my edition has a colour plate in the middle depicting a map. (Alas, it’s so small that the detail is almost indecipherable.) Yet it probably could have been shorter. Winchester includes an entire chapter that is nothing but an interlude describing his childhood fascination with fossils along the cliffs of Dover. It’s informative in its own way, and I suppose for some readers it might be the highlight of the book; for me, however, it was a distraction from the main story of William Smith. Coupled with Winchester’s tendency to hop through the chronology—occasionally in vexing ways—in order to highlight certain themes, thereby repeating or relating some facts more than once, and The Map That Changed the World is slightly long-winded.

Neither of these criticisms are enough to stop me from recommending this book to others, mind you. I’m not as certain I will read other things by Winchester, but I’ll take a look at his catalogue and see if anything else piques my interest. This is far from a perfect book, and there were times when I found my mind wandering to other topics or found myself cursing the overabundance of passive constructions. Overall, though, The Map That Changed the World is a detailed and passionate account of the life of William Smith and his contributions to English geology. It has its rough patches. But it promises to tell the story of how one map changed everything, and in this respect, the book definitely succeeds.

Engagement

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