The Scientist Time Forgot

By Neil Gross


William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology

By Simon Winchester

HarperCollins -- 329pp -- $26

To the pantheon of 19th-century scientists that includes Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Michael Faraday, and Gregor Mendel, author Simon Winchester would like to add the name William Smith. A self-educated surveyor and consultant on coal mining projects, Smith was one of the first to suggest that rock strata beneath the earth's surface could be identified by the characteristic fossils found in each layer. He used his understanding to create the first map of England depicting the geological strata. This achievement, according to Winchester, paved the way for Darwin's world-altering insights into evolution, and it is the focus of Winchester's new book, The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology.

In this well-researched narrative, the author follows the same formula he used so effectively in his 1998 best-seller, The Professor and the Madman, which described the genesis of the Oxford English Dictionary. Both books highlight the often unlikely sources of great intellectual achievements, but the formula doesn't work quite so well in the latest book. For one thing, there are jarring gaps in the narrative. Moreover, while the eponymous map is Smith's achievement alone, he had no monopoly on early geological theory. Winchester damages his case by straining to hoist Smith's contribution high above those of other pioneers in the field.

The idea of a stratigraphic map may not grab many readers, but the contours of Smith's life, laid out in the prologue, probably will. Born in 1769, he spent two decades at the turn of the century crisscrossing thousands of miles of the English countryside, scrutinizing stones and fossils, exploring the deepest reaches of coal mines, and piecing together a three-dimensional picture of the earth's surface layers. His vast knowledge earned him the nickname Strata Smith--along with modest wages from the aristocrats whose country estates he helped dredge.

Smith completed his magnificent 81/2-foot-by-6-foot color drawing in 1815, only to have it plagiarized by a patrician clique of armchair geologists. The revenues Smith counted on from the map never materialized; he sank into poverty, and his wife went mad. Only after Smith was forced to spend months in a debtors' prison and several years in exile from London did his supporters manage to restore his reputation, giving him at least a taste of financial security and academic respect before he died in 1839.

The gritty practice of geology comes to life in the capable hands of Winchester, who holds a degree in the field from Oxford University and worked as a geologist in Africa. He opens a window onto England's coal-fueled economy at the turn of the century, with vivid descriptions of the mines and the canals that were constructed to barge the coal. Smith consulted on these engineering projects, which earned him money, the chance to travel, and a close-up view of the rock faces.

Not surprisingly, all that digging unearthed an extraordinary wealth of petrified plants, sea animals, dinosaur bones, and other fossils, which became drawing-room trophies in wealthy estates across the land. Their true age wasn't determined until the invention of radiometric dating, early in the 20th century. But even in Smith's time, people surmised that the fossils were thousands--if not millions--of years old and that most of the species were extinct. The presumed spans of time and the very idea of extinction undercut contemporary creationist views of the world--views to which Smith himself subscribed. All of that is good grist for Winchester, who summarizes the grand debates on evolution and even pauses at one point to provide a refresher course in geology in the form of a walk through rockscapes of his childhood.

The dramatic climax comes in the last 50 pages of the book. The costs of Smith's incessant field trips, plus his bad investments in real estate and mining projects, mired him in debt, forcing him to sell off his treasured fossil collection. Smith ultimately lands in King's Bench Prison--at which point, Winchester hits a serious roadblock. "The horrors of [Smith's] imprisonment and miseries of his marriage remain the two great nonsubjects in William Smith's recorded life," the author abruptly informs us. "All reference to them has been expurgated from his works...and from all other contemporary accounts." That's disturbing, since Winchester has foreshadowed these events with gusto earlier in the book.

What's more, Winchester never nails the precise nature of Smith's scientific contribution. We are told repeatedly that he paved the way for Darwin, but the connection isn't explicit. Certainly, other geologists of the period, such as Charles Lyell, played a far greater role on the intellectual stage. When Darwin prepared for his journey on the Beagle, in 1831, he packed the first volume of Lyell's Principles of Geology. Did he ever pay a similar tribute to Smith's scratchy writings, or study his famous map? Winchester doesn't say.

All of which left me puzzled, at times, with the author's choice of Smith as the subject of a biography. Wedged among such giants as Darwin and Mendel, Smith seems uncomfortably out of place. Still, this book offers many attractions--not least the beautiful images of the map. Winchester makes the science accessible and captures some of the intellectual crosscurrents at the dawn of geological science. In both regards, he does readers a service.

Gross is senior editor for science and technology.

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