Books by Winchester, Simon

Winchester, Simon. The Map that Changed the World. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 0-06-093180-9.
This is the story of William Smith, the son of an Oxfordshire blacksmith, who, with almost no formal education but keen powers of observation and deduction, essentially single-handedly created the modern science of geology in the last years of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, culminating in the 1815 publication of Smith's masterwork: a large scale map of the stratigraphy of England, Wales, and part of Scotland, which is virtually identical to the most modern geological maps. Although fossil collecting was a passion of the aristocracy in his time, Smith was the first to observe that particular fossil species were always associated with the same stratum of rock and hence, conversely, that rock containing the same population of fossils was the same stratum, wherever it was found. This permitted him to decode the layering of strata and their relative ages, and predict where coal and other minerals were likely to be found, which was a matter of great importance at the dawn of the industrial revolution. In his long life, in addition to inventing modern geology (he coined the word “stratigraphical”), he surveyed mines, built canals, operated a quarry, was the victim of plagiarism, designed a museum, served time in debtor's prison, was denied membership in the newly-formed Geological Society of London due to his humble origins, yet years later was the first recipient of its highest award, the Wollaston Medal, presented to him as the “Father of English Geology”. Smith's work transformed geology from a pastime for fossil collectors and spinners of fanciful theories to a rigorous empirical science and laid the bedrock (if you'll excuse the term) for Darwin and the modern picture of the history of the Earth. The author is very fond of superlatives. While Smith's discoveries, adventures, and misadventures certainly merit them, they get a little tedious after a hundred pages or so. Winchester seems to have been traumatised by his childhood experiences in a convent boarding-school (chapter 11), and he avails himself of every possible opportunity to express his disdain for religion, the religious, and those (the overwhelming majority of learned people in Smith's time) who believed in the Biblical account of creation and the flood. This is irrelevant to and a distraction from the story. Smith's career marked the very beginning of scientific investigation of natural history; when Smith's great geological map was published in 1815, Charles Darwin was six years old. Smith never suffered any kind of religious persecution or opposition to his work, and several of his colleagues in the dawning days of earth science were clergymen. Simon Winchester is also the author of The Professor and the Madman, the story of the Oxford English Dictionary.

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