The Map That Changed the World Summary
by Simon Winchester

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The Map That Changed the World Summary

When people discuss geology, the idea of strata is one of the first terms that is introduced. Strata, or the layers of material one can see when looking at cross-sections of the Earth, explain a great deal about the ways in which the land developed—and even when it was not land at all—in any given area. This is in some ways the book of the planet, the record of what has transpired, and when. The story of the first man in England to begin to talk about and map his country's strata is the story of The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology.

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It has not always been the case that ordinary people knew what strata were or why they are important. In fact, it has not always been the case that there were bonafide geologists studying such things. In England, a single man began to penetrate this realm of understanding on his own, by struggling with the meaning of the layers he spied in a mineshaft in Somerset. His name was William Smith, and he was born in 1769. Curiosity about the rocks around him and the Earth below him drove him to ask questions such as what these layers he saw on the mine walls meant. As he looked at the layers on the walls, he began to unravel a mystery that had troubled him for years, back above ground.

When he watched his uncle, a dairyman, weigh out his goods, he noticed that the object he used, called a pound-stone, did not look like a stone at all. Eventually, he identified it as a petrified sea urchin. But what was an artifact from the sea doing so far inland, he wondered? He got an answer to that question—and to many more—in that Somerset mine. At one time, this inland town was not inland at all but was part of the great oceans. That story and much more was revealed to Smith as he learned the book of the Earth written in the strata.

Smith eventually captured his observations on brilliant maps—brilliant both in the sense that they were very cleverly conceived and in terms of the electric colors used to illustrate them. Those maps became a cornerstone for modern geology and brought William Smith fame. The Map That Changed the World chronicles this explorer's great professional victories, as well as his personal tragedies.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Whether William Smith was the founder of modern geology, as Simon Winchester claims, or is more deserving of the more narrow, but still impressive, title of the founder of stratigraphical geology given him by an earlier biographer, is for the experts in the history of geology to debate. What is unquestionable is that he was one of the pivotal figures in the history of geology. Smith’s life illuminates not only the history of geology but also the social history of British science. Both the nature of geology and the social status of scientists were changing in Britain at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Smith was a major catalyst in the transformation of geology from a science practiced in the library to one conducted in the field. His life and career illustrate the tensions within the discipline and the alterations in the social status of those who practiced it. Yet he has been relatively ignored by historians of science.

This is surprising because he is a natural subject for a biography. Unlike many English scientists, his life was spent about as far from the cloisters of the British universities as possible. Moreover, as Winchester presents him, he can serve as an example of the common man in a desperate struggle with the immoral establishment which steals the fruits of his labors. He was the victim of an unfair social order, but also his own flaws. Ultimately, in his case good did triumph over evil, and Smith belatedly received the recognition he deserved, but only after years of poverty and insult.

The son of a village blacksmith who died when Smith was only eight, Strata Smith, as he came to be known, had only a basic education. He escaped village life to become the assistant to a surveyor at age eighteen. Through his...

(The entire section is 2,077 words.)