IT IS RARE that a book on geology, let alone stratigraphy, rises high in the bestseller lists. But as GE went to press, The map that changed the world was at number seven in the Sunday Times'hardback list, after spending 10 weeks in the top 10 and selling more than 16,000 copies in the UK.
Simon Winchester's biography of William Smith, the creator of the world's first national geological map, should appeal to the general bookbuying public because although it deals with the development of stratigraphy and the birth of the science of geology, it also chronicles one man's fight for recognition by the scientific establishment of the early 19th century.
Smith, a blacksmith's son, was born in Oxfordshire in 1769. Despite his humble beginnings, he became a coal mine surveyor and canal engineer and was one of Britain's foremost drainage experts.
Underlying all his achievements was an obsession with fossils and geology. Smith spent nearly 20 years travelling the length of the country mapping geological features and amassing a huge fossil collection. The result was an remarkably accurate eight feet tall and six feet wide hand-coloured geological map of England and Wales, published in 1815.
But Smith paid a terrible price for his devotion.
He was imprisoned for debt (largely through selffinancing of his journeys), evicted from his home and shunned by the founders of the Geological Society who plagiarised his work. He left London with his insane (and, Winchester alleges, nymphomaniac) wife, to live an inconspicuous life as a drainage engineer.
It was nearly 15 years before 'Strata' Smith finally received the recognition he craved, returning to London in 1829 to be hailed as the father of English geology.
The map that changed the world is a light but interesting study of the first tentative steps of a new science and a fascinating insight into how early practitioners battled against polite society and religious dogma to prove their theories at a time when anything other than creationism was heresy.
Winchester manages to use geological terminology without detriment to the flow of the story, which may not suit serious tastes but should ensure it will be read by a wider public - and that can never be seen as a bad thing.
l The map that changed the world - the tale of William Smith and the birth of a science, by Simon Winchester, Viking, £12. 99, www. penguin. co. uk