Monday, September 29, 2008

The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology / Simon Winchester -- NY: Harper Collins, 2001.

The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester is really about the man who made the map that changed the world: William Smith. It's an illuminating biography of an 18th century miner and canal builder who hailed from the working class. Smith comes to recognize the repeated sequences of rock lying just below England's topsoil. From these observations, he develops a theory of the history of rock formation and sets out on a long project to map the geology of the British Isles.

Winchester's prose is often repetative and sensational. The early pages read like a poorly written trailer to a movie that you know can't possibly be as good as the trailer suggests. In the end, though, Winchester portrays Smith's life well enough for the reader to understand Smith to be a complex character, incapable of writing the book that would establish his place in the history of science. Instead, Smith's place is established by his authorship of a magnificent map. Even here, the map is only produced when it is sponsored by the leading map maker of the time.

The book combines biography with accounts of class relations in late-Georgian England and a smattering of the fundamental principles of geology. The main story is centered on Smith's life-long struggle to make a living and his roller coaster relationship with his patrons in the English aristocracy. Smith comes off as a gifted geologist and hydrologist, but a pathetic business person and academic scientist. All in all it was not the page turner I had desired, but it was interesting enough, especially for how it illuminated the circumstances surrounding the foundation of the science of geology. I would have appreciated a bit more geology (or even the technicalities of map making) and a little less biography.

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