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The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geologyby Simon Winchester
Synopses & Reviews
From the author of the bestselling The Professor and the Madman comes the fascinating story of William Smith, the orphaned son of an English country blacksmith, who became obsessed with creating the world's first geological map and ultimately became the father of modern geology.
In 1793 William Smith, a canal digger, made a startling discovery that was to turn the fledgling science of the history of the earth — and a central plank of established Christian religion — on its head. He noticed that the rocks he was excavating were arranged in layers; more important, he could see quite clearly that the fossils found in one layer were very different from those found in another. And out of that realization came an epiphany: that by following the fossils, one could trace layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell — clear across England and, indeed, clear across the world. Determined to publish his profoundly important discovery by creating a map that would display the hidden underside of England, he spent twenty years traveling the length and breadth of the kingdom by stagecoach and on foot, studying rock outcrops and fossils, piecing together the image of this unseen universe.
In 1815 he published his epochal and remarkably beautiful hand-painted map, more than eight feet tall and six feet wide. But four years after its triumphant publication, and with his young wife going steadily mad to the point of nymphomania, Smith ended up in debtors' prison, a victim of plagiarism, swindled out of his recognition and his profits. He left London for the north of England and remained homeless for ten long years as he searched for work. It wasn't until 1831, when his employer, a sympathetic nobleman, brought him into contact with the Geological Society of London — which had earlier denied him a fellowship — that at last this quiet genius was showered with the honors long overdue him. He was summoned south to receive the society's highest award, and King William IV offered him a lifetime pension.
The Map That Changed the World is, at its foundation, a very human tale of endurance and achievement, of one man's dedication in the face of ruin and homelessness. The world's coal and oil industry, its gold mining, its highway systems, and its railroad routes were all derived entirely from the creation of Smith's first map.; and with a keen eye and thoughtful detail, Simon Winchester unfolds the poignant sacrifice behind this world-changing discovery.
"Winchester's strength is his ability to meld into compelling narrative a host of literary conventions, such as foreshadowing and fictionalized, internal dialogue. With descriptive contemporary visitations to places significant to the story and well-chosen historical detail, he makes immediate not only the magnitude and elegance of Smith's accomplishment, but also the thrill of each of the moments of genius necessary to reach his ultimate conclusion." Publishers Weekly
"Winchester tells Smith's story, including the dramatic ups and downs of his personal life, in vivid detail. Like the work of Dava Sobel (Longitude, 1995) and Mark Kurlansky (Cod, 1997), this is just the kind of creative nonfiction that elevates a seemingly arcane topic into popular fare." Booklist
"Winchester tends to moralize somewhat too much (how those who disrespected Smith, or, worse yet, tried to steal his ideas, are taken down!), but this is nonetheless a lively book about how evolution came to be understood." Adrienne Miller, Esquire (Click here to read the entire Esquire review)
Book News Annotation:
Winchester tells how canal digger William Smith noticed the layers in the soil he was digging, and different fossils in each layer, and eventually created the first geological map, of England, Wales, and part of Scotland, in 1815. He also explains how the map and the concepts behind it changed the western view of history and the earth. He includes a glossary without pronunciation guides.
Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Includes bibliographical references (p. -310).
About the Author
Simon Winchester is the author of The Map That Changed the World, The Professor and the Madman, and The Fracture Zone, among many other titles. He lives in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.
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