This review appeared earlier.
Themes: science vs. religion, triumph of the underdog, the self educated working scientist vs. the elite theorist
I’ve been a fan of Winchester’s since I read The Professor and the Madman several years ago. Sure, he can go on a bit, like in Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, where he spent lots and lots of time on Continental Drift and not enough time on exploding volcanoes. But when he’s on, he’s really on. So I was happy to get a copy of this book at the used bookstore.
I’d have to rank it up there with my favorites. Winchester’s geology background really shows in this book, but that’s not a bad thing. First of all, who but a geologist, or a scientist anyway, would choose to write a biography of someone like William Smith, who never did anything sexy or cool, but simply wandered all over the British isles, improving drainage, of all things, digging canals and mines, and making a map?
But what a map. A map that really did, in its own way, change the world. He’s called The Father of English Geology, which doesn’t sound like an especially cool epithet to me, but to each his own. But his map made possible the huge advances in the dating of the earth of understanding Continental Drift, as mentioned above, and finally allowed us to understand what fossils actually were, not Figured Stones, but relics of previous living things. That was huge.
I loved the cover. It’s a copy of his map that unfolds. I loved that there is another copy of the finished map inside, in full color, and a modern map with it for comparison. I wish they had added a color portrait of the subject as well. Color I guess doesn’t really matter, but the full page size would have been nice. There’s a glossy of geologic terms at the back, but the few words I looked for weren’t there. Oh, and I *really, really loved* that this was a story of a brilliant man of humble origins who made a huge discovery, was ridiculed and victimized because of it, and then was vindicated. How cool is that?
If you are interested in reading about science, I would recommend this one. If you like stories that feature real life triumphs of the underdog, I would definitely recommend this. It’s not your usual take on the subject, but it’s all true, and it makes a great story. 4.25 stars