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'GEOLOGY' Second science history digs deep



Published: Sun, November 18, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Winchester also wrote the 1998 best seller 'The Professor and the Madman.'

By ROB STOUT

SPECIAL TO THE VINDICATOR

& quot;The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, & quot; by Simon Winchester (Viking, $26).

Roughly 200 years ago, William Smith a blacksmith's son from rural England with a life-long passion for all things subterranean, began to question the origins of the ground he was digging. With the aid of little more than common sense, stick-to-itiveness and years of research, he would come to be regarded in his lifetime as one of the founding fathers of modern geology.

The story of how Smith single-handedly turned the meaning of rock and dirt into a respected science is, at its heart, an oft repeated tale of individual triumph over obscurity and commonly held misperception. But in the hands of Simon Winchester, whose best selling 1998 & quot;The Professor and the Madman & quot; told of an intriguing world of murder and scholarly contribution, Smith's unsung life provides the perfect backdrop for yet another entertaining intellectual history.

Up until Smith's time, it would have been inconceivable for any scientist to bring up the idea of a slow evolution of the earth's formation. In this pre-Darwinian world, it was a mandate of the church that God began the act of creation on a Monday and wrapped things up by the following Saturday. So, for more than a century, few dared to poke around in these sacred assumptions.

Science: Smith did not engage in religious debates. Rather, he looked at the undeniable physical evidence: coal strata formed some 300 million years before from crushed prehistoric vegetation, seams of identical rock that contained similar fossils and long dips in limestone beds that were once rivers.

Over several decades, while working as a mineralogist, canal builder, drainage expert and cartographer, he painstakingly noted his findings. He eventually concluded that all rocks had been layered over time as sediment with the oldest on the bottom, the latest on the top. More importantly, different layers contained different fossils, And thus, the science of statigraphy, the cornerstone of geology, was born.

British map: The result of his labor, the first geological map of Britain presented to British Geographical Society of London in 1815, was met with instant success.

However, the more landed members of the newly formed society had other ideas for someone of Smith's & quot;low birth. & quot;

& quot;The theory of geology is in possession of one class of men while the practice in another, & quot; he concluded after being dragged off to debtor's prison during which time the society placed their own seal on the map and reaped the proceeds from its sale.

But for Winchester, the story only really picks up when science and human drama collide. Embittered, homeless and forgotten, the author charts Smith's slow return from exile to respectability in a way that will have readers cheering for the neglected surveyor and hissing the perfumed dandies of the geographical society.




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