Ronald Scheurer, November 15, 2009 (view all comments by Ronald Scheurer)
The Map That Changed the World, Simon Winchester, 2001. While it took a whole army of people to put the OED together, it took only William Smith, basically a canal digger, to put together a geological map of England and Wales in 1815 that allowed at least some human beings to escape the fog of religious dogma and understand a little about their origins.
Smith was born on March 23, 1769, first son of a blacksmith, a bit more than 5,771 years after the earth was created. In England, at that time, what was the start of the industrial revolution had begun, and the underpinnings of the scientific method, observation, deduction, and rational thought, took over some of mythical explanations about the earth, its resources, the origin of life, and ultimately just where humans fit into the natural scheme of things.
Smith’s father died when he was eight years old. His mother remarried. Smith ended up on his step father’s farm where dairymaids used what they thought were stones to weigh newly churned butter. A closer look by curious William held his interest. They were not stones.
Fossils, known as early as the 1730’s, and their implications for religious dogma didn’t mix. But once coal mining started for use in producing steam and heat for developing industries, more fossils were found. Could the earth be more than 4,000 years old? Winnable coal in North Somerset County indicates from modern radiometric dating to have been laid down 310 to 290 million years ago!
Fast forward. Smith spent a lot of time recording layered rock in coal mine shafts. The stratified layers, while they heaved up and down, were fairly consistent with each other. To move coal canals were built. Smith studied the rock formations along their routes. He also spent a lot of time inside of railroad tunnels, recording the uplift and down drift of the rock walls noticing that the layers followed consistent patterns. Bingo! Following the landscape on the surface, Smith drew over the years his geological map of the British Isles.
Fast forward again. What makes the book an interesting read is the trials and tribulations that Smith went through before being recognized for his work against the many odds he faced as common born among the aristocrats.
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Shoshana, October 7, 2007 (view all comments by Shoshana)
While I liked The Map that Changed the World well enough, it was a slow read (about 25 pages a night). I preferred Winchester's OED-related books, perhaps because I'm actually interested in the picky details of dictionary development, and because with a focus on words his Byzantine sentences don't seem out of line. Winchester is somewhat repetitive, which helped to relate events to each other but also diminished any dramatic tension to be found in the story.
I didn't mind the intrusion of the author's story at mid-book; I understood it as an outcropping from a different era than the surrounding narrative, if I may use a geological metaphor. Perhaps the problem was that I gained little sense of William Smith's psychology, which made this more a book about the history of an idea and less about the progenitor of the idea. That's fine, but a less-rich narrative.
Winchester's richness seems typically to reside in his descriptions of the historical context in which the events of his books occurred. At this he is quite masterful. I enjoy Winchester's compulsive need to share amusing tangential or coincidental information in footnotes. He also turns one particularly fine phrase , which may help explain why there is so little of Smith's emotional stratum in this book. Regarding Smith: "He was no great diarist; but once in a while his entries make one wish he had been a better one" (p. 56).
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by Adrienne Miller, Esquire,
"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." (Click here to read the entire Esquire review)
by Publishers Weekly,
"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."
"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."
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.
Winchester tells the fascinating story of an Oxfordshire blacksmith's orphaned son who discovered an unmistakable pattern in the rocks. From this, William Smith developed the first true geographical map following fossils and rock patterns, earning him a place in history as the father of modern geology. Line drawings. Maps throughout, 2 in color.
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