Book Review: The Map that Changed the World

My favorite getaway: renting a place, bringing a bunch of books (or better yet, discovering new books in the rental home), cooking in the Instant Pot, hiking, and playing the ukulele. I have apparently infected at least one offspring with similar interest in reading.

This week’s book? A story about a man living in England in the 1800’s, who ultimately is credited with what is modern day geology.

What’s cool, is the book cover actually unfolds into a large reproduction of the original map.

William Smith’s life is entirely relatable. He learns math and measurement, and has a keen eye for observation. As a young man, he helps develop a coal mine, and notices that the layers of earth, hundreds and thousands of feet down, seem to have a recurring pattern. Furthermore, as he gains experience digging canals, he sees the same patterns laid out across the region of Bath, where he is employed. Over a number of years, he is employed to dig canals, drain swamps, marshes, farms, all the while collecting rocks, fossils and developing his theory of Stratification (a term he coins).

I note that I am entirely a geologic novice, and Permian and Cenozoic terms come and go without lodging in my brain. However, Smith catalogues and builds ideas, and eventually a map of Bath. He links various strata with geologic eras, with aspirations of mapping all of England.

The trouble is, he’s a working man, traveling and helping companies and individuals. Furthermore, he (imprudently) maintains two offices and a home, that he cannot afford. His marriage to a mentally ill woman does not help, and his ideas lay dormant and unpublished for far too long. He DOES publish a fabulous map, sells 400 copies at “7 guineas each”, a disappointing non-recognition of his thousands of miles of travel and careful analysis.

This map is a massive work: it lays out across England, the layers of rock, coal, sandstone, chalk, etc, and the sequence of layers hidden below. In future years, it will end up launching the coal industry, farming, minerology, and influencing Charles Darwin.

In his adult years, he is fraudulently scooped, with others publishing his work as their own. He is denied admittance to the Royal Geological Society, snubbed because he is an orphan, and not born to high society.

With accumulating debt from his properties and failed business, he ends up going to debtor’s prison, losing everything, and then starting over, nearly penniless, living in rentals and traveling to do survey work.

Based on some chance meetings, he ends up getting recognition for his original solo research and work, FIFTY years later, and is finally recognized and rewarded, in his old age, as the Father of Modern Geology.

I can’t help but think that, so much of our lives are happenstance:

  • Whom you meet and connect with
  • How random chance connects you with a job you flourish in, or fail miserably at
  • What the local culture (class-based snobbery, or open-minded scientific inquiry) encourages or prohibits
  • How you develop useful skills, and work hard
  • How you see that others may not; what do you do with that knowledge
  • How you personally persist past obstacles, or succumb to pressures

CMIO’s take? This could have been a story of any scientist, any informaticist, any CMIO. This could have been MY story. And that’s what the best books are about.

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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