Monday, March 27, 2017

The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology

The Map that Changed the World tells the tale of “a map whose making signified the beginnings of an era not yet over, that has been marked ever since by the excitement and astonishment of scientific discoveries that allowed human beings to start at last to stagger out from the fogs of religious dogma, and to come to understand something about their own origins.” In setting out to tell the story of what he sees as the most important map of the 19th century, Simon Winchester ends up telling the story of the map’s creator: William Smith.  In doing so, he not only describes the birth of the new science of geology, but also provides a compelling picture of late 18th and early 19th century England from the perspective of the struggling middle and lower classes.  By telling the story of William Smith and his stratigraphical map of England, Winchester introduces the reader to the economic, social, cultural, and scientific issues of the day, which may be the most important feature of his book.

The map in question is William Smith’s groundbreaking geological map that showed, in vivid color, the age and type of rocks throughout England and Wales.  Interestingly, Scotland and Ireland are excluded from Smith’s colossal undertaking, which required him to cover the length and breadth of the area on foot.  Winchester claims that this particular map is ultimately responsible for “the making of great fortunes – in oil, in iron, in coal, and in other countries of diamonds, tin, platinum, and silver – that were won by explorers who used such maps.  It is the map that laid the foundations of a field of study that culminated in the work of Charles Darwin.”  According to Winchester, the creation of the map is different from all of the other great scientific creations of mankind because it is the sole creation of one man, not a group effort.

Other than the development of geology as a unique and separate area of research, Winchester focuses on changes in England’s economy and a move away from the literal interpretation of Scripture for the explanation of all phenomena, as well as social barriers from within England’s natural philosophy establishment to those from the lower classes.  The first two areas are critical to the development of the map and the direction of William Smith’s life, and show how he was able to support himself while creating the map, while the third illustrates the political infighting among scientists and the dangers of not publishing what are now known as “least publishable units” to lay claim to a specific area of inquiry so that the unscrupulous could not claim it as their own after copying research notes or learning new methods directly from the source.

Economically, turn of the century England experienced drastic changes, one directly related to geology and one related more to the quality and quantity of food produced by English farms.  Geology became economically important as the use of coal increased exponentially, methods for its extraction improved, and the creation of canals for inexpensive transportation of coal from mine to market grew.  Coal was used for heating, for powering the fires of industries, for use in the new steam engines, and after conversion to tar to fuel lamps.  Technological increases, particularly the use of steam engines, allowed coal to be mined at greater depths and with less risk to the miners. At the same time mine owners, desiring to increase their profits by reducing their transportation costs, began building canals from their mines to the location of their markets. These three coal-related issues combined to increase interest in geology, when William Smith showed that the location of coal deposits could be extrapolated from the rocks found in a region.

Smith came to this conclusion after he noted that the rock strata in mines in a small geographical area all appeared in the same order and with the same slope.  This meant that he could tell approximately where and at what depth coal seams could be found in an area.  After traveling throughout England and Wales studying various rock formations he was able to determine what strata were located under a given location.  Canals come into the picture because their construction, in which Smith was consulted, gave him the chance to examine the strata through which the canal was cut.  This enabled him to determine which strata were found in the different regions the canal ran through, increasing his understanding of the geographical layout of England.  He had also correlated the appearance of fossils with different rock strata and noted that the fossils, like the strata always appeared in the same order.  This allowed him to examine the fossils found on the ground and determine what strata lay beneath – laying the groundwork for the creation of his geological map.

The other major change in the English economy that Winchester focuses on in telling the tale of William Smith and his map is agriculture.  The great new innovation in English agriculture was the enclosure acts, which radically altered English agriculture by enclosing fields for the use of individual farmers and increased agricultural efficiency.  The old method of English farming held the fields near a village in common, with farmers taking strips of land for themselves and leaving others fallow, while the new method closed off the fields and introduced the use of new machines, new theories of crop rotation, and the introduction of new livestock.  According to Winchester this economic change resulted in better foods such as white bread and roast beef, and a lengthening of the English lifespan.  Winchester introduces this for several reasons.  First, the world of agricultural change was that which Smith was born into: his birthplace of Churchill was not “enclosed” until the 1770s.  Second, Winchester sees it as part of a greater trend of enhanced knowledge of the world and comfort in it that was the hallmark of the era.

As well researched and readable as The Map that Changed the World is, it also has some quirky problems.  The first is the minor issue that Winchester frequently steps aside to describe landscapes, houses, farms, and stone as plain, pretty or uninspiring.  It is not entirely clear whether this is a value judgment, or if it is meant only to provide the reader a different feel for different locales.  One excellent example is his description of Smith’s birthplace of Churchill, which Winchester describes the new system as creating “the English countryside that we still see today, mannered, orderly, and inordinately pretty,” while the old method “was woefully inefficient, the landscape it created plain and uninteresting.” He also notes that the weathering of older stone buildings “are quite sublime.” The only time that it is obvious that Winchester may be passing a value judgment that might interfere with his objectivity is found in the prologue, in which he calls Smith’s map “incomparably beautiful.”

An additional issue with Winchester’s text is his digression into his own childhood experiences in Dorset with its Jurassic period strata and his early fascination fossils.  It would be easy to dismiss this as merely an attempt to draw the reader further into the story of geology and his love for it, or to provide a more personal feel for how William Smith felt when discovering his first fossils, or noting that he could read the strata from the lay of the land.  It seems strange that Winchester would choose to insert himself into the text in this manner, where it had not had the feel of a personal journey before.  It is also interesting that the text quickly loses this personal touch.  It almost seems as if Winchester is attempting to makes a connection between himself and Smith, no matter how tenuous.

These two issues aside, The Map that Changed the World is valuable on many levels.  First, it re-introduces modern society to another of the great scientific minds that laid the groundwork for our understanding in the world.  If, as Winchester claims, Smith’s geological work ultimately led to Darwin’s Origin of Species, then he deserves the same level of approbation as Einstein, Newton, and Copernicus.  Second, it provides the reader with a look at the changes in English society at the turn of the 19th century almost from the perspective of the individuals they affected.  A major benefit of Winchester’s informal tone is that his work is accessible enough for readers to feel some of what Smith and others experienced.  Finally, Winchester shows that the world of science is beset by the same vanities and prejudices as the societies the scientists are part of.  By showing that Greenbough went through a large amount of effort to in effect steal Smith’s work on the map, Winchester shows that scientists frequently have the same motivations as the “regular” people.

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