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Simon Winchester studied geology at Oxford and has written for Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. Simon Winchester's many books include The Professor and the Madman ; The Map that Changed the World ; Krakatoa; and A Crack in the Edge of the World. Each of these have both been New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. Mr. Winchester was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by HM The Queen in 2006. He lives in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.
In the last unit of my semester earth science class at an Orange County, California high school, I frequently come face to face with fundamentalist Christian views of the geological time scale. I'm told that the scale is a fiction made up to support the theory of evolution. I explain to my students that the pattern of strata and fossils that guided [and still guide] the building of the geological time scale is very real and exists independently of the explanation of the pattern. I explain that people like William 'Strata' Smith and others who followed him established that the pattern exists years before Charles Darwin convinced the scientific world that evolution happened. I don't want to kill their faith, but I won't lie to them. Now Simon Winchester has given us a book that I can hand to my students and say, "here's how William Smith figured it all out." In The Map That Changed The World, Simon Winchester [in a very British and somewhat hyperbolic fashion] tells engagingly of the life of William 'Strata' Smith, surveyor, self-taught geologist, and maker of the first geologic map. I've known of Smith since my days as a student geologist [I can't recall that my professors ever mentioned the great map; their emphasis was always on Smith's discovery of the principle of faunal succession, or as Winchester writes in the book, "In his opinion, he wrote, all the rocks that had been laid down as sediments at a particular time in a particular place are laid down in a way that has much the same characteristics, and most particularly just the same fossils, and always appear in the same vertical order, in the same stratagraphical order, no matter where they are found.Read more ›
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This is a potentially fascinating book for readers who like biography, geology, landscape, England, rocks, or fossil ammonites. All right, I admit I was suckered by the cover: the hb dust jacket unfolds into a single large geological map of England, Wales, and southern Scotland! It is The Map That Changed the World in 1815 by revealing the rock strata beneath an entire country: the existence of time and order, of coal beds, building stone, ores, and soil types, all now made predictable. The fact this 1/13th size version of the immense hand made and coloured original by William "Strata" Smith won't stand magnification might have warned me about the text within. Once beyond the exciting promise of the clever jacket and quality presentation I was increasingly disappointed. Winchester's biographical construction of Smith's life, while chronological overall, casts Smith's remarkable rise from the farm, and his wonderful scientific observation and insight, as a morality play against 18th century class prejudice and religion ("the blind acceptance of absurdity"!) taken quite out of historical context. Aside from Smith never having been involved in religious controversy (see pp. 195-96), the authorial tactics make it hard to follow Smith's story rather than Winchester's arch exegesis. Despite the frequent assertions of how earth-shaking was Smith's map, the book is such a farrago of description, quotation, flashforward, biography, travel, snide remark, foreshadowment, reconstruction, admiration, speculation, flashback, asides, suggestion, British nostalgia, coincidence, and digressive (but not scholarly) footnotes that the revolutionary consequences of Smith's innovations in stratigraphy, fossil assemblage, and mapping are buried and never come across coherently and convincingly.Read more ›
I first read Simon Winchester when I came across his book The Professor and the Madman. This wonderful book is the story of the development of the OED. Now he has written a book on William Smith, the man who developed many of the ideas of rock stratification which laid the foundation for modern geology. The ultimate expression of Smith's genius was the production of the world's first geological map which gives this book its title. Smith's story is a fascinating one and Winchester tells it well. Smith, a rural blacksmith's son, is orphaned and works his way up to being what in today's language we would call a civil engineer. As he works on the construction of coal mines and canals he see the strata of rock and collects fossils, coming to the understanding that the relationship between these things tells us about the age of the rock layers. This concept will have far-reaching repercussions in science. Winchester also tells us of Smith's struggles to get his work recognized in a class-stratified world of gentleman-scholar-scientists. Along the way, Smith overextends himself financially and finds himself in debtors' prison. After that, he and his reputation seem to fade away only to be resurrected near the end of his life when he begins to reap some of the honors for his work in a field which has since passed him by. Then he fades away again. Winchester is beginning to make a habit of writing stories bringing to light forgotten people making important discoveries and doing important work that has changed our world. I hope it is a habit he continues. I am already looking forward to the next gem he digs up. He and Dava Sobel are a one-two punch of brilliant modern writing on scholars and scientists who deserve to be remembered.
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