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The Map That Changed the World: William…
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The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern… (2001)

by Simon Winchester (Author)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 58 (next | show all)
It was a very enjoyable and easy read. There are parts scattered throughout the book where the author tends to ramble and wander onto tangents. The book would have been stronger and tighter if the author had stayed on topic. The line drawings peppered through the book add a nice bit of visual detail but I would have liked to have seen even more of them used. ( )
  pussreboots | Aug 18, 2014 |
I really enjoyed this little book about the ups and downs of the life of British geoloogist William Smith. He invented stratigraphy, and his genius was not rewarded until later in life. At times Mr. Winchester's portrayal of William Smith became a little boring, but at other times the writing was fluid and robust. If you like history and biographies this is a terrific book to read. I liked it, so will you. ( )
  robrod1 | Jan 31, 2014 |
Can you say "ax to grind"? Winchester repeats several mantras in the first few chapters ad nauseum. His anti-religious spin finally got to be too much. It wasn't worth my time. It appears that the story is just not well documented enough for his oh-so-thorough treatment. ( )
  2wonderY | Aug 20, 2013 |
The author does a creditable job of creating an entertaining read, given the dearth of historical records and William Smith's largely unexceptional life. Alas (at least for narrative purposes), Smith wasn't one of those fascinating dilitantes of the 18th/19th century who managed to dabble in science, arts, literature, politics, and philosophy, all while managing an extravagent estate. Smith was obsessed with just one thing - geology/paleontology - but what he did, he did exceptionally well. His geologic map of the U.K. - the first geological map ever endeavored, remarkable accurate for its time - may not have changed the world on its own, but his theories on stratographic deposition - especially when combined with Darwin's insights into natural selection - definitely contributed to a continental shift (pun intended) in how future generations came to regard natural science.

Up until Smith's work at the beginning of the 19th century, it appears no one had bothered to question why the Earth beneath our feet seemed to be layed down in layers, why some of those layers contained coal while others didn't, nor why some of those layers seemed to contain fossils of sea life even though they were located far inland. Primarily this is because, at that time, people were busier trying (with uneven success) to fit observed facts into the Biblical account of Earth's genesis rather than visa versa.

Smith's work as a coal miner and drainage engineer placed him in the ideal position - geographically and historically - to start piecing together the puzzle that laid the foundation for a more scientific approach to geological time and Earth's origins.

All was not science and glory for Mr. Smith, however - partly due to the jealousy of rivals, partly due to bad luck, partly due - even the author admits - to Smith's own deficits. The man was an poor communicator, vain, spendthrift, and a terrible procrastinator, who also appears to have married unwisely and to have made a series of inexplicably reckless decisions that eventually led to disgrace and bankrupcy. Never fear - the story has a happy ending! Towards the end of his life Smith's reputation was salvaged and today the "Father of English Geology" occupies his rightful place in the pantheon of geology gods.

I agree that the story is a thin one, made even thinner by the fact that Smith appears to have been an inconsistent, unreliable journalist and there's a dearth of 3rd person accounts to corroborate or enrich Smith's sparse narrative. For instance, I'm still not sure whether his fascination with geology was merely the result of intellectual curiosity or more of an obsession/compulsion; I'm not clear whether he was socially adept or a social disaster(different anecdotes seem to come down on different sides); it's not clear to what extent Smith reconciled (or failed to reconcile) his findings with extant beliefs re. Earth's history; and Winchester's such a Smith fanboy that I can't shake the feeling he may have omitted information/analysis that would have shed a less favorable light on our reticent protagonist.

Having said that, I give Winchester props for making this story of geological exploration broad, engaging and accessible. If the author's portrait of Smith isn't quite complete, at least I gained interesting insights into British history, the geology of the U.K., the state of scientific discovery in the late 1700s/early 1800s, and debtor's prisons. His descriptions of geological phenomenon are simple and lucid (though a few more charts/graphs might have been useful). And if Winchester's heavy use of foreshadowing does sometimes confuse the chronology, at least it keeps you turning pages right up until the end. Perhaps not a great book, but I definitely don't regret the time I spent in Mr. Smith's company, and hope one day to be able to visit his great map at the headquarters of the Geological Society in London on the strength of this amiable tale. ( )
  Dorritt | Aug 5, 2013 |
Not terrible, but not wonderful either. The first few chapters have a great deal of Winchester saying "Oh look, here's the guy who's going to/did change the world! Isn't he wonderful!", then going back to trying to set the scene - not just Smith's early life, but the way of thinking and understanding the world that formed the background of his life. The Great Flood wasn't just a religious concept, it was simple fact - the way things happened, the thing that made the world - for instance. I found that scene-setting impaired, not helped, by Winchester explaining things that Smith saw and was the first to understand in terms of what we know now, long after that first inspiration. The real problem is that there is very little documentation of Smith - his own diary is most of what Winchester had to work with, for all but the last few years of his life. And the diary is written to remind Smith what was going on, not as a record for posterity. Winchester had to do a _lot_ of padding to get a book out of this skimpy data, and unfortunately it shows. There's also the fact that while Smith suffered greatly from prejudice and disdain, he also brought a great deal of his troubles on himself, by overspending and overpromising. When people have subscribed to receive a book, they expect to get a book, not promises and silence... All that aside, it's an interesting presentation of a major shift in understanding (ok, 'paradigm shift'), triggered by one man who seemed to excel at actually looking at what was in front of him and integrating it into a complete structure. Others either found facts to support pet theories, or merely looked at the pretty things and didn't theorize at all, and therefore came to no conclusions about the relations of one type of rock to another. I'd love to go see that map, sometime. But the book is too annoying to be interesting - between Winchester's padding and Smith's sad-sackness, I'm glad I read it and I'm glad I don't ever have to read it again. ( )
  jjmcgaffey | Jul 31, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 58 (next | show all)
Smith was ultimately successful because his ideas were immediately useful, and his map was beautiful as well as reasonably accurate for its era. It taught us to begin to look beneath the surface and see the history of our planet. The publisher of ''The Map That Changed the World'' pays tribute to Smith in the ingenious dust jacket of this book, which unfolds to form a striking reproduction of Smith's map.
 
True, the reader must put aside a familiarity with Smith's discoveries, which have long since become textbook information, and travel back in time to the days when the earth was literally terra incognita. But for those willing to suspend previous knowledge and great expectations, Mr. Winchester tries hard to make this story worth the trip.
 
The genre of scientific biography has gone rather stale over the last year or so, but Winchester's book may well prompt a revival.
 
Listening is akin to hearing an articulate scientist reading a paper to a lay audience. It's an authoritative delivery and an enjoyable experience.
 

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Winchester, SimonAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Vannithone, SounIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Above one of the many grand marble staircases within the east wing of Burlington House, the great Palladian mansion on the north side of London's Piccadilly, hangs a pair of huge sky blue velvet curtains, twisted and tasseled silk ropes beside them. (Prologue)
The last day of August 1819, a Tuesday, dawned gray, showery, and refreshingly cool in London, promising a welcome end to a weeklong spell of close and muggy weather that seemed to have put all the capital's citizens in a nettlesome, liverish mood.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060931809, Paperback)

Once upon a time there lived a man who discovered the secrets of the earth. He traveled far and wide, learning about the world below the surface. After years of toil, he created a great map of the underworld and expected to live happily ever after. But did he? Simon Winchester (The Professor and the Madman) tells the fossil-friendly fairy tale life of William Smith in The Map That Changed the World.

Born to humble parents, Smith was also a child of the Industrial Revolution (the year of his birth, 1769, also saw Josiah Wedgwood open his great factory, Etruria, Richard Arkwright create his first water-powered cotton-spinning frame, and James Watt receive the patent for the first condensing steam engine). While working as surveyor in a coal mine, Smith noticed the abrupt changes in the layers of rock as he was lowered into the depths. He came to understand that the different layers--in part as revealed by the fossils they contained--always appeared in the same order, no matter where they were found. He also realized that geology required a three-dimensional approach. Smith spent the next 20 some years traveling throughout Britain, observing the land, gathering data, and chattering away about his theories to those he met along the way, thus acquiring the nickname "Strata Smith." In 1815 he published his masterpiece: an 8.5- by 6-foot, hand-tinted map revealing "A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales."

Despite this triumph, Smith's road remained more rocky than smooth. Snubbed by the gentlemanly Geological Society, Smith complained that "the theory of geology is in the possession of one class of men, the practice in another." Indeed, some members of the society went further than mere ostracism--they stole Smith's work. These cartographic plagiarists produced their own map, remarkably similar to Smith's, in 1819. Meanwhile the chronically cash-strapped Smith had been forced to sell his prized fossil collection and was eventually consigned to debtor's prison.

In the end, the villains are foiled, our hero restored, and science triumphs. Winchester clearly relishes his happy ending, and his honey-tinged prose ("that most attractively lovable losterlike Paleozoic arthropod known as the trilobite") injects a lot of life into what seems, on the surface, a rather dry tale. Like Smith, however, Winchester delves into the strata beneath the surface and reveals a remarkable world. --Sunny Delaney

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:49:23 -0400)

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Smith, a canal digger, spent twenty years working on the first geological map of the British Isles which he published in 1815.

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