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Hardcover The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology Book

ISBN: 0060193611

ISBN13: 9780060193614

The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology

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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... This description may be from another edition of this product.

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

The first of the working field geologists

This book reminded me of why I took a degree in Geology so long, long ago. That is, it reminded me of the sense of excitement that I once felt for the wonders of the earth. This is not some dry-as-dust history, for you actually feel like you are accompanying Smith on his travels through England as he laid the foundations for the modern science of geology. For that is what William "Strata" Smith was- the founder of modern Geology, and the first working field geologist. Sure, there had been academic and aristocratic dilettantes working in the field before Smith, but it was he who actually got his hands dirty and climbed down into the mines and canal excavations. It was he who formulated the Law of Superposition, and if I am not mistaken, the Law of Faunal Succession. It was Smith who was the first to actually go out (with a pack horse) and first correlate sections, measure strike and dip, and use index fossils to differentiate strata. And, of course, he was the first to visualise how to depict the three-dimensional structure of the earth on a geologic map. Anyone who has tried to work steadily in the field will recognize and sympathize with Smith's ups and downs. He rose from very humble rural beginnings to essentially educate himself and then secure a successful and well-respected career, only to end up essentially homeless for a decade and then in a debtor's prison. He saw his work stolen by others. It was only in his later years that his reputation and fortunes were reestablished. Anyone familiar with the oil patch will recognize this pattern.... Oh yes, and the snobbery and elitism of academic geologists for those who actually work for a living will also strike a familiar note. I have one small complaint with this otherwise excellently written book. The author mentions the Enclosure Acts while trying to explain Smith's village background in the 18th century. He makes it sound like the Acts were instituted by Parliament purely to provide for the more efficient farming, if not beautification, of the English countryside. Anyone who is familiar with Enclosure (and not trying to rewrite history) knows that this was a colossal land-grab by landed gentry to throw the poor off of commonly held village lands. It also served to make the rural poor desperate enough to work in the hellish mines and mills of the early industrial revolution....

The Principle Of Faunal Succession

In the last unit of my semester earth science class at an Orange County, California high school, I frequently come face to face with fundamentalist Christian views of the geological time scale. I'm told that the scale is a fiction made up to support the theory of evolution. I explain to my students that the pattern of strata and fossils that guided [and still guide] the building of the geological time scale is very real and exists independently of the explanation of the pattern. I explain that people like William 'Strata' Smith and others who followed him established that the pattern exists years before Charles Darwin convinced the scientific world that evolution happened. I don't want to kill their faith, but I won't lie to them. Now Simon Winchester has given us a book that I can hand to my students and say, "here's how William Smith figured it all out."In The Map That Changed The World, Simon Winchester [in a very British and somewhat hyperbolic fashion] tells engagingly of the life of William 'Strata' Smith, surveyor, self-taught geologist, and maker of the first geologic map. I've known of Smith since my days as a student geologist [I can't recall that my professors ever mentioned the great map; their emphasis was always on Smith's discovery of the principle of faunal succession, or as Winchester writes in the book, "In his opinion, he wrote, all the rocks that had been laid down as sediments at a particular time in a particular place are laid down in a way that has much the same characteristics, and most particularly just the same fossils, and always appear in the same vertical order, in the same stratagraphical order, no matter where they are found."], but Winchester takes the story of Smith way beyond the brief tales of the canal digger who was fascinated by fossils that are told in the typical college class. Smith has become an even bigger hero of mine now that I know of his struggles with the class distinctions found in England in the early 1800's and that he was all too human enough to have a problem sticking to a budget. I read the paperback since my signed first printing of the hardback is too beautiful to handle [the dust jacket of the hardback folds out into the geologic map of England and Wales that Smith made]. My only complaint, and it's a teenie tiny one, is that Winchester's hyperbolic writing style sometimes comes very close to crossing the line from biography into hagiography.I highly recommend The Map That Changed The World to anybody with an interest in geology, paleontology, cartography, history, England in the 1800's, or the ups and downs of a fascinating life. Get the hardback for the jacket, but read the paperback and then donate it to your local junior high, high school, or public library.

Science, Snobbery, and Success

Simon Winchester has produced a worthy successor to The Professor and the Madman, his study of one of the unlikeliest contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Map That Changed the World is the story of William Smith, a self taught and brilliant geologist who created the first geological map of England and Wales.This book is a delight for several reasons. First, it successfully evokes the atmosphere of the late eighteenth century to early nineteenth century, an exciting period when scientific inquiry was beginning to challenge old certainties. William Smith did not just develop a new way to depict the earth's surface, he was developing a new theory about the earth's history and thereby challenging religious orthodoxy. Secondly, this book works because William Smith himself was such a pleasant, unpretentious fellow. His singleminded devotion to geology brought him into contact with many British aristocrats, whom he seems to have treated in the same down to earth style he used for everyone. This, along with some disastrous financial and marital decisions,led to Smith's impoverishment and imprisonment for debt and (probably worst of all to him) his blacklisting from membership in the elite Geographical Society. It is good to know at the end of the book that Smith overcame these setbacks and by the end of his life was receiving the honor and acclaim he deserved. The third reason to buy this book is Simon Winchester's writing itself. As in everything he produces, Winchester sparkles and charms. So buy the book, along with anything else by Winchester you can find.

Remembering Forgotten Genius

I first read Simon Winchester when I came across his book The Professor and the Madman. This wonderful book is the story of the development of the OED. Now he has written a book on William Smith, the man who developed many of the ideas of rock stratification which laid the foundation for modern geology. The ultimate expression of Smith's genius was the production of the world's first geological map which gives this book its title.Smith's story is a fascinating one and Winchester tells it well. Smith, a rural blacksmith's son, is orphaned and works his way up to being what in today's language we would call a civil engineer. As he works on the construction of coal mines and canals he see the strata of rock and collects fossils, coming to the understanding that the relationship between these things tells us about the age of the rock layers. This concept will have far-reaching repercussions in science.Winchester also tells us of Smith's struggles to get his work recognized in a class-stratified world of gentleman-scholar-scientists. Along the way, Smith overextends himself financially and finds himself in debtors' prison. After that, he and his reputation seem to fade away only to be resurrected near the end of his life when he begins to reap some of the honors for his work in a field which has since passed him by. Then he fades away again.Winchester is beginning to make a habit of writing stories bringing to light forgotten people making important discoveries and doing important work that has changed our world. I hope it is a habit he continues. I am already looking forward to the next gem he digs up. He and Dava Sobel are a one-two punch of brilliant modern writing on scholars and scientists who deserve to be remembered.


.If ever you can judge a book by its cover, this is it. The copper embossed dust cover hints at the treasure buried within. From its binding, to the choice of paper to the fine etched illustrations, this is a very classy book.Winchester takes us aboard one of the most effective literary time machines ever to land on a bookshelf. His writing sweeps us back 200 years to an England that was going through an industrial, scientific and social revolution.Coal was king. Coal was the fuel for steam power. In turn, steam drove Britannia's economic engines.William Smith was skilled as a geologist, engineer and cartographer. His observations and maps allowed landowners to discover and exploit the coal resources that lay beneath their land.Smith's science went well beyond that of defining the strata containing the valuable coal. He devised the concept of stratigraphy, which would allow the relative age and spatial distribution of sedimentary rocks to be quantified. It was this work, that inspired Smith's fellow geologist Charles Lyell to write "The Principles of Geology". When Charles Darwin went on his voyage of discovery it was the geological insights of Lyell and Smith that allowed Darwin to conceive of the vastness of the geological time scale. It is Winchester's thesis that Smith's map changed the world because of this direct influence on the most revolutionary scientific thinker of the 19th Century.In the mid-1800s thanks to Darwin, geology was considered to be "The Father of Sciences".The beauty of Winchester's writing is his evocation of the world in which Smith lived 200 years ago. His description of the English landscapes brings home to us the relationship between the underlying rocks and the aesthetics of the natural scenery we see around us. Winchester's skills as a travel writer shine through. He surveys not only the landforms but also the social and political landscapes of this era. His clever use of the vocabulary of the era gives us a world inhabited by such people as beadles, tipstaffs and summoners. We travel in a conveyance called a myrmidon. His research is impeccable. We learn that there was an actual prison in London called "The Clink", and that the game of rackets or squash was invented in a debtors jail. This book deserves its status as on of the great books of 2001. It should encourage readers to go back to Winchester's early work, particularly his travel writing. For readers who wish to learn more about Smith's influence on science should read Lyell's "Principles of Geology" which still in print as a Classic. This is the book that Charles Darwin took on his voyage of discovery. "The Map That Changed the World" will take you on your very own voyage of discovery.
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