Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Map that Changed the World, by Simon Winchester

Image from Simon Winchester

I've just finished Simon Winchester's wonderful book The Map that Changed the World (2001, HarperPerennial). Winchester carries the reader back into nineteenth century London, when science was exploding and Geology was absolutely new.

By the time Smith's geological map was hung in Burlington House in 1815, scientists and society had begun to question a dogma of the time. It was no longer a given that the world had been created by God on Monday, October 23, 4004 BC, whole and complete with all the creatures that had ever lived. (p 12)

While such a religious axiom held sway, how could fossils exist? It would be blasphemous to think that these once-live creatures had become extinct; the notion seemed to suggest that God might have made mistakes.

As well as religion, class and money also counted for a great deal in the society of the time; ironically, establishing the science of geology was an insufficient qualification to get William Smith invited to join the Geological Society of London.

That honour was reserved for wealthy amateur geologists and collectors, most of whose scientific work apparently took place in their armchairs. Indeed, the more plush members of the Society seem to have given scant consideration to inviting the originator of their science to join the club.

In fact, as Winchester reveals, it was a founding member, the well-heeled George Bellas Greenough, who not only infamously plagiarized Smith's map, but arranged the publication of his version of the stolen work in such a manner as to undercut the sales of Smith's smaller maps and hasten his financial ruin.

Eventually, however, the old guard at the society made way for a new generation. Greenough's plagiarism was exposed, and Smith received formal recognition for his great contributions to geology. The following generation fared better: Smith's nephew, John Phillips, who learned geology first with his uncle, was able to practice it at Oxford.

Like an engrossing novel, the book opens with Smith being released from debtor's prison in London and leaving for Yorkshire in disgust, impecunious and accompanied by his mentally unstable wife. Winchester's story is filled with fascinating details of strata and fossils and stone. Reading Winchester's warm geological portrait, I saw again in memory the charming villages of glowing Cotswold stone that I visited last in 1978: Upper Slaughter, Lower Slaugter, Moreton-in-Marsh, Bourton-by-the-Water.

Through the meticulous research and the writer's engaging voice, the reader witnesses Smith's early years of canal building, when he first noticed the pattern of the strata. We intuit Smith's passion for geology as we follow his muddy and uncomfortable travels around the country, collecting fossils and cataloging their places in the geological layers.

An Oxford-trained geologist, Winchester gives a compelling description of map Smith created with so much labour and for so little reward; it is remarkably similar. he says, to those produced by teams of geologists today. As a result of reading this book, I definitely plan to see Smith's Geological Map. I hope also to have the opportunity to see some of "Strata" Smith's wonderful collection of fossils at the London Natural History Museum.

At the end of Winchester's book, he reveals William Smith's new legacy, brought to fruition by enthusiastic readers of Winchester's book. The Museum in Scarborough, amazingly, was restored by their energetic efforts. Before publication, this cylindrical building, designed by Smith to display his fossils in the order of the earth's strata where they were found, was falling into decay. Thanks to much effort by inspired readers, in May 2008, the Rotunda was reopened as the William Smith Museum of British Geology.

My desire to devour the words of Simon Winchester was originally evoked by a newspaper interview I read many years ago. The image of his his plimsolls melting under him as he trekked across the heat of a volcanic island stayed with me, and his book Krakatoa (2003 HarperPerennial) made me determined to read anything and everything he writes.

By an interesting coincidence, my daily commute was recently livened by the audio version of Tracy Chevalier's novel Remarkable Creatures (paperback HarperCollins 2010), which features the great fossil collector, Mary Anning of Lyme Regis.

Along with the Oxford eccentric William Buckland, Anning comes into Winchester's book. Like Smith, Anning received limited support and recognition while she lived; she too was born to the lower classes. Earning her living by digging for fossils on the beach, she had to live with the fact that people with deeper pockets and better connections were quite unashamed to buy her astonishing finds for a pittance and carry them away.

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