Few branches of science are so closely attributable to a single originator as geology. Simon Winchester gives us a brisk walk through the life of William Smith as his observations of the English countryside grew from surveying for coal mining, canal building and agricultural drainage to a full mapping of its surface and subsurface geologic structures.
The life story includes Smith’s humble beginnings and emphasizes how his lack of social standing, despite his competence in his surveying work, hindered acceptance of his scientific work. He tried to offset this status by living above his means, with consequent times of financial failure and debtors prison.
Recognition of his scientific work follows a similar arc. Smith came to a sweeping understanding of the sedimentary layers of coal, limestone, chalk, and other soil and mineral formations that he observed in regular bands across England. This understanding was enhanced by the correlation of fossils associated with different layers. The consistent tilt of these layers also allowed him to predict their appearance underground. This understanding was of obvious commercial value to the mining industry at that time and since to petroleum and other industries. Smith finally compiled his observations in his “Map of the Strata of England and Wales,” which sold well, though Smith’s lack of social standing meant that the economic value of his work went largely to others. Intellectual recognition of the originality of Smith’s work, and its importance to understanding the formation of the earth and the evolution of life, was contested for years. Eventual recognition of Smith’s creative role in forming the science of geology came later in his life, giving a happy ending to the story.
Winchester’s telling of the story is quintessentially British in style. He wields arcane vocabulary and scientific terminology in intricate sentences that are at times charming and at sometimes just dense. Winchester makes scientific concepts understandable to readers willing to do some work, or skippable without losing the flow. There are a number of helpful illustrations, but a shortage of maps of Smith’s whirlwind travels throughout England that would orient readers who don’t know that geography. This book opened a new area of knowledge for most of our group, though some of us had touched bits of its subject matter. It provided wonderful discussion material for our group. We explored imprisonment for debt, how Smith avoided conflict with literal interpretations of biblical creation stories, the shift of thought during the unfolding of the age of reason and the industrial revolution and the individual genius of finding unique significance from observations seen by millions.
— Bill Smith