Robert Fulford's column about William Smith

(The National Post, July 31, 2001)

Just 200 years ago, most people couldn't begin to understand fossils. They looked like rocks with etchings of plants or animals on them, but who drew the etchings? There was a theory that God placed these art-like objects on Earth, even inserted them into mountains, to remind humans of His genius. A few thinkers, notably Leonardo da Vinci, had suggested they were a record of the planet's development, but it was impossible to imagine a process that occurred over millions of years, turning organic material to stone.

A learned 17th-century bishop had worked out the precise year of Creation (4004 BC), and around 1800 many still took that seriously. No one had yet learned how to read fossils as the Book of Life, the essential Bible for the secular age. In that milieu, William Smith (1769-1839), the unschooled son of a blacksmith, played out the historic role of the obsessive loner-genius who doggedly overcomes all obstacles on the road to his own special greatness. He was a craftsman who turned into a scientist and then reshaped humanity's thoughts about itself and the planet.

Smith and his work are the subjects of The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, an engrossing and deftly made book by Simon Winchester. He's the English journalist and author best known for The Professor and the Madman, about the American doctor who became a major contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary while imprisoned in Broadmoor Asylum for murder.

Smith's story reminds us how imagination shapes science. Countless hours must be spent in the slogging work of proof and disproof, but soaring imagination gets it all going. A practical fellow in most ways, Smith entered history through a leap of the imagination so great it must have felt almost like fantasy.

In adolescence he was drawn to rocks, like the little "Oxfordshire pound stones" that showed up in the fields near his home, delicately patterned and apparently inexplicable objects. They were calcified sea urchins, evidence of the ocean that once covered Oxfordshire, but decades would pass before that became clear.

At the age of 22 Smith went to work in a coal mine near Bath, surveying a minor deposit. Winchester argues that the pit Smith analyzed, where he began speculating about the meaning of the strata beneath the surface, deserves a place in history beside the pea garden where Gregor Mendel developed the foundation of genetics or the Galapagos Islands that pushed Charles Darwin toward evolution. He makes a good case.

Examining coal seams, Smith began his lifelong study of the layers of rock beneath the surface of the Earth. Where others saw chaos, Smith saw patterns. As with so many scientists, his ability to recognize patterns became crucial to his thinking.

He began identifying the particular fossils of each layer, which eventually made it possible to date a geological formation by its fossils. He became the first stratigrapher, the founder of English stratigraphic geology. Like other self-taught men who made earth-shaking discoveries, he was apparently able to speak of little except his main subject. He talked about it so much that people called him Strata Smith.

He invested many years of solitary labour into the great accomplishment of his life: a wall-size map published in 1815 under a 47-word title beginning "A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales ..." Winchester tells us this first true geological map not only led to great fortunes (in oil, iron, coal, etc.) but laid the foundations for Charles Darwin's work and all that came after.

Smith had a certain amount of good luck with his research, the kind of luck that comes only to the industrious. But the rest of his life was spectacularly unlucky. His work was stolen by plagiarists, and he so mishandled his business affairs that he spent 10 weeks in a debtor's prison, when he was 50. His marriage was a misery. For years he was homeless and unemployed, and his work didn't bring him official recognition and a state pension till he was 62.

Smith kept meticulous research notes but left few details about himself, which means Winchester must strain to bring him to life. On the subject of Smith's marriage, the biographer's cupboard is especially bare. There are no records of his wife's origins, no wedding date and little information on the instability that eventually put her in the mental hospital that diagnosed her trouble as "nymphomania," which in the 19th century may have meant an interest in sex.

Winchester acknowledges at one point that he's anxious to say nothing to diminish his hero, so he mostly ignores scientists like Jean-Etienne Guettard (1715-1786), who uncovered the volcanic nature of the Auvergne and mapped the distribution of minerals across Europe, and Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), whose system of zoological classification led him toward the development of paleontology. People like these worked some of Smith's ground before Smith, or at the same time. Even so, his accomplishment remains enormous.

It doesn't take a genius for pattern recognition to see that Winchester's book goes on the same shelf with Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997), by Richard Wolkomir, The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World (1998), by Larry Zuckerman, and Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour that Changed the World (2000), by Simon Garfield. These authors follow the same rule: Startle the audience into wakefulness by asserting that your subject is the pivot of history. They know how painfully hard it is to sell a book, and believe they must first sell their subjects. They don't lie, though. Each of them makes a persuasive case, even if it's essentially a partial case.

Simon Winchester studied geology at Oxford in the mid-1960s, and he has the science popularizer's knack of making us believe, at least while we read him, that we understand more than we do. Ideally, the author draws us into the subject and with persistence we may end up actually knowing something about it. Even if we don't, in this case we are left with an acute awareness of a man whose discoveries helped create the intellectual air that all of us breathe.

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