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Engineer Discovered Earth’s Strata on Company Time

National Post, 18 August 2001

Book Review
The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, by Simon Winchester
HarperCollins, 336 pages

The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern GeologyCold-blooded murder, sexual obsession, penile amputation. Simon Winchester’s magnificent 1999 book, The Professor and the Madman, had it all. Not bad for a popular history of the Oxford English Dictionary. Now, the gifted British author and travel writer tackles perhaps the biggest subject of all — the creation of the world.

The Map that Changed the World tells the story of William Smith (1769-1839), an Oxfordshire blacksmith’s son who helped transform the science of geology. An engineer by training, Smith was hired in the 1790s to survey and plan the route for the Somerset Canal near Bath. It was the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and the canal was one of many built at the time to transport coal to England’s growing urban centres.

Smith goofed off on company time — no surprise there. But instead of playing solitaire or scanning pornography, Smith carefully examined, recorded, and compared the different layers of earth, rocks, and fossils he observed as the land was slashed open. He discovered that the same basic strata, each with distinctive fossils, appeared in the identical order everywhere he looked. It was a revolutionary insight, and he used it to create the first geological map of an entire country — or as Winchester calls it in his breathless title, the “map that changed the world.”

Unfortunately, 300 pages of such hyperbole can be exhausting. Winchester tells us repeatedly that the map “heralded the beginnings of a whole new science,” that it “laid the foundations of a field of study that culminated in the work of Charles Darwin.” We later learn that it was an “extraordinary achievement,” “little short of a miracle,” and, what’s more, “likely of earth-changing importance.” Two-thirds of the way through the book, Winchester still hasn’t caught his breath, and assures readers that Smith’s map was “mightily impressive . . . a grand, grand map, big, eyecatching, memorable . . . . There was no other such map of an entire country anywhere in existence.”

To be fair, a man like William Smith could probably do with a little hype. As a youth, Smith “became fascinated . . . with drains, drainage, natural springs, culverts, bogs, and pools.” While working on the Somerset Canal, he once tried to lecture his bosses about his geological theories. But as he wrote in his diary, “though I was continually talking about rocks and other strata, they seemed not desirous of knowing the guiding principles.” Smith, in short, was a bore.

Winchester overcompensates by trying to transform Smith’s life into the stuff of legend. Smith becomes the Misunderstood Genius whose work is plagiarized or dismissed, and whose life is plagued by tragedy; he marries a half-mad nymphomaniac and is thrown into debtors’ prison. But Smith’s indomitable spirit saves him. Just making the map “required patience, stoicism, the hide of an elephant, the strength of a thousand, and the stamina of an ox. It required a certain kind of vision, an uncanny ability to imagine a world. . .” Well, you get the idea.

And true to such narratives, a Great Enemy must thwart the hero’s efforts, an evil Galactic Empire to William Smith’s heroic Jedi warrior. Enter the Church, the made-to-order villain in popular histories of science. Darth Vader is played by the 17th-century Anglo-Irish prelate, James Ussher, best known for his calculation of the precise moment of the Biblical creation; in Winchester’s mocking summary, God created Earth “on the dot of the all-too-decent hour of 9 A.M., on a Monday, October 23, 4004 B.C.”

But it’s silly to sneer at poor Ussher and his 17th-century adherents. (On the other hand, it should be a social duty to mock public figures who continue to believe that the world is 6,000 years old.) Many experts now revere Ussher’s chronology as an ambitious yet flawed product of humanist scholarship, incorporating all known biblical and classical sources. Winchester hints bizarrely that it was official Church doctrine, and that to deny Ussher’s numbers “was to risk being branded a heretic.”

Rubbish. The Church not only tolerated scientific research; it actively encouraged it, for reasons of its own. (Even the Catholic Church’s celebrated censure of Galileo did nothing to weaken the vast support it gave to astronomical research.) Smith himself was a church-goer, and his two foremost colleagues were Reverend Joseph Townsend and Reverend Benjamin Richardson. These were not “radically inclined scientists who were bold enough to challenge both the dogma and the law,” but pious churchmen determined to uncover the hidden majesty of God’s creation.

So why does Winchester go to such lengths to attack the Church? A clue comes in a central chapter, in which Winchester reminisces about his childhood and recent research. It is exquisitely written, and the only chapter that manages to capture the thrill of learning and the vast sweep of geological history. But it is marred by a description of the nuns who taught him at boarding school, “black and hooded like carrion crows, fingering their rosaries and muttering prayers or imprecations.” The triumphant march of science, sadly, seems to have done little to dispel the modern enthusiasm for anti-religious bigotry.