Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Geologist and the Mapmaker ; the First Geological Map Was a Revelation That Sparked a Revolution

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Geologist and the Mapmaker ; the First Geological Map Was a Revelation That Sparked a Revolution

Article excerpt

William Smith could have used modern bankruptcy law. It would have spared the pioneer of geological science the indignity of a British debtor's prison. Treachery, plagiarism, and his own spendthrift ways had turned well-earned prosperity into debt- ridden professional defeat.

Smith's misfortune makes the point that scientific revolutions sometimes are driven by the struggles of less-than-perfect people. That's worth remembering when we marvel at newly found pre-human fossils in Ethiopia. We take for granted the ability to determine that they come from geological strata more than 5.5 million years old. That skill has been hard won. His biographer says that for Smith to create the science of stratigraphy was "a lonely and potentially soul destroying process." It "required tens of thousands of miles of solitary travel, the close study of more than fifty thousand square miles of [English] territory."

The result for humanity was the first geological map of an entire nation and the creation of a new scientific field. The result for Smith was a slow descent into obscurity as rivals who stole his work also denied him public recognition. In the long run, Smith's story unfolds happily with the award of belated honors, including a royal pension.

Now Simon Winchester, who wrote "The Professor and the Madman" in 1998, is determined to rescue the abused scientist from obscurity. This is a biography both of the man and of the great map, which hit the elite of Smith's day with the mind-altering force of a revelation. (The book's dust jacket is a clever fold-out reproduction of the map.)

Western civilization wouldn't have known what to make of discoveries like the Ethiopian fossils when Smith began working exactly 200 years ago. People took it for granted that what they saw around them was part of the divine creation described by the Bible. …

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