Simon Winchester brings us another extraordinary tale of an extraordinary man. The Map that Changed the World tells the story of William Smith and the birth of the science of modern geology. Eventually emerging triumphant from a troubled life involving poverty, homelessness and an insane wife, William Smith was to become the toast of scientific London in the early 1800s. We asked Simon to tell us a little about his new book.
What first drew you to William Smith’s remarkable story?
For some curious reason I had long remembered my tutor at Oxford, Harold Reading, telling me that William Smith, so quiet and unassuming and working-class a figure that he seemed likely to be condemned to absolute obscurity, deserved one day to be written about, and his heroic achievements noted and proclaimed. I had never written any kind of biographical account until I tackled the story that went on to become The Surgeon of Crowthorne — until then, in 1998, I had believed I would always be writing about travel. But The Surgeon, which proved a totally unexpected best-seller, worldwide, awoke in me what must have been a long-dormant interest in writing about people and time, rather than about places and journeys — and so I cast about for another subject who came from the same period, and who seemed to have a similarly engaging life story. I thought back to what few topics I knew about in detail, and then in a sudden flash of realisation, remembered my tutor and his admonition that one day William Smith deserved to have a book written about him. I looked Smith up in the Dictionary of National Biography, found to my delight that he, like the surgeon, had gone to prison — and immediately and with huge enthusiasm began the research.
Why was William Smith’s discovery so invaluable and why is he so under recognised?
Geology, it seems almost redudant to say, underlies and underpins everything: the site of every city, every gold mine, every field, every island is determined purely by geology — and humanity’s condition is more directly influenced by geology than by any other aspect of the natural world. But until William Smith we could only surmise what that geology was, and what it would and could be elsewhere. We had no map. No-one had ever been clever enough to draw the invisible underside of our world, and tell us exactly what it was that was underpinning our entire existence. And then William Smith — despite being cheated, discriminated against, ruined and shunned for no better reason than that he was humbly born — made a map for us. Suddenly, after that epiphany of 1815, the nature of the world became fully clear — and now, whenever we drill for oil, or build a dam, or create a new city or look for a place to site our atomic waste or our most valuable records or to mine for silver and diamonds or iron, we go to the maps, geological maps that are drawn always on precisely the same basis as that which William Smith devised, so manfully and so humbly and by hand and by himself, two centuries ago.
What was the oddest place you found yourself in during your research?
Poring over the records of Mr. Smith in Oxford, under the unflinching gaze of the very last dodo ever known to exist on the planet.
Stereotypically, geologists are boring men with beards who talk about rocks, but you’ve made geology seem very accessible and completely fascinating. Was this one of your aims when writing the book?
I feel passionately that geology is the most romantic of sciences, as well as being of the most profound importance. The field trips on which I went in the Scottish Hebrides, and later in East Africa and the Americas, were for me times of absolute wonder and great happiness, spent in the company of men who seemed to me then and remain in my mind now, visionaries of a very special kind. The opportunity to visit some of the loneliest and most ruggedly beautiful places on earth, with scientists who had the uncanny gift of knowing just why these rugged and beautiful places were exactly as they were, remains a great privilege; if I can communicate through the story of William Smith any hint of the great romance of this small and exclusive company of the world’s earthwatchers, then I will feel I have succeeded.
Can you tell us a bit about the next book you’re writing?
My fascination with geology has been comprehensively whetted by writing about William Smith; the next book exploits this new interest by telling in great detail the story of The Day the World Exploded — the catastrophic and very well recorded detonation, on 27th August 1883, of the Javan volcano that was then known as Krakatoa.
Which writer do you most admire?
The literary mind I most admire, aside from those of good lexicographers and encyclopaedia compilers, is that of Georges Perec; his awesome, massively complex volume Life: A User’s Manual remains the modern book that I most revere.