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Wednesday, August 29th, 2001


The Map That Changed the World

by Simon Winchester

A review by Adrienne Miller

In 1815, one William Smith (nickname: "Strata Smith") published a gorgeous eight-and-a-half- by six-foot map of England called "A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales." It was the first geologic map ever published. Here, the author of The Professor and the Madman tells the story of how Smith's map came into being over the course of many difficult years. As a young man, when he'd been a surveyor in a coal mine, Smith had noticed the way the layers of rock changed in color and texture, and his work on this map, his masterpiece, was based on his own empirical observations of land and fossils. Smith was, by Winchester's account, a headstrong, self-educated, hungry sort, and his obsession with the map, which took him through the last decades of his life, ultimately landed him in debtor's prison and destroyed his marriage. 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.

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