Sunday, 23 February 2014

Book review: "The map that changed the world", by Simon Winchester.

William Smith is today widely acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of geology. Smith is rightly acknowledged as a massively important figure in the formative science of geology, although he is not as famous as James Hutton, whose unconformity at Siccar on the Berwickshire coast gave dramatic clues to Earth's history.

He came up with the concept that seemingly-identical bands of rocks could be differentiated by the types of fossils found within, and that any band of rock containing the same fossils had to have been laid down at the same time, wherever it was found in the country. He also noticed that many fossils appeared to get more complex as rocks get younger, a concept that aided Darwin's later work. In addition, he worked out that layers of rock are mostly found in the same order; if a certain sandstone lies above a certain coal measure in one area, you can assume that if you find the same sandstone in a different area, coal will probably lie underneath.

The importance of these theories for industry are all too obvious; indeed, Smith could achieve the seemingly miraculous feat of predicting what rocks could be found. If a landowner wanted to know if there was coal under his land, then Smith could tell him without any costly digging. The importance of the theory on the Christian church are harder to understand from the modern perspective, but these problems are outlined well in this book.

From humble beginnings, Smith became an engineer and drainer, responsible for water management and canals in a similar manner to one of my heroes, William Jessop (who is actually mentioned in the piece). These jobs gave him the opportunity to travel and to compare rocks, whilst his work on the Somerset Coal Canal gave him the chance to examine a transect of a geologically interesting part of the country.

Despite those humble beginnings, Smith's ideas and concepts developed a worthy following. His first geological map was of the are around Bath in 1799, and by 1815 he had produced the first complete (if much delayed) geological map of England and Wales.

It is here that this book becomes more of a paean than a scholarly work. Mr Winchester comes across as a little too fond of his subject. Either that, or a misplaced need to impose drama, causes what was a complex grey situation to be painted as black and white. Anybody who opposes Smith becomes an unsympathetic character in the book; even a friend who slightly wrongs him is treated as if he were a little child who eventually learns the errors of his ways.

In 1819 Smith was thrown into a debtor's prison in London. This book puts this mainly down to a competition with a plagarised copy of his map released by the recently-formed Geological Society of London. However whilst reading the book it is obvious that Smith was the architect of his own misfortune, with several failed business ventures unconnected to mapping, his delays in creating maps and books, and his rather ostentatious habit of buying houses that were rather too grand for his income. The book admits that his friends and admirers tried to help and gave him money, but that his debts were too great.

I also wanted to know more abut Smith the man. He married a younger woman, Mary Ann, who the book claims was mentally ill with something akin to nymphomania and ended her days in a mental institution. Whilst it seems that the parts of Smith's diaries containing references to Mary Ann was later expunged, and his nephew and biographer did not mention her much, I wanted to know more, even if it was mainly supposition. Smith appears to have stood by his wife, and her to him, throughout their travails; I wanted to know if that was really the case, and why that may have been.

Likewise, Smith took in his orphaned nephew, John Phillips, who himself became a famous and well-respected geologist. I wanted to know a little more about their relationship, and Phillips' view of his uncle.

By the time of Smith's death, the leadership of the Geological Society had changed and Smith's key work in the formative science was acknowledged. he was awarded plaudits, praise and even a pension of £100 a year from King William IV.

It is also made clear that others were working on how the Earth was formed at roughly the same time, most notably the aforementioned James Hutton. It would have been nice for the author to mention how Smith's work and theories fitted in around those of the other geological titans. For instance, did Hutton influence Smith's work? If so, then it is hardly to the detriment of Smith's theories or his maps.

All the valedictory words in this book could be replaced by just two pictures: Smith's 1815 geological map is reproduced within the inside cover, and an equivalent modern map within the back cover. Flicking between these two, and the similarities between them, shows better than any words Smith's achievement. For this reason, it would have been nice if they had been available as larger fold-outs, so they could more easily be compared.

I would give this book four out of five stars: geology can be a very dry subject, and Mr Winchester explains the terminology well and without assuming too much background knowledge. However it could have done with more focus on Smith the man, and less blaming others for Smith's own misfortune.

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