Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What Geology Can Teach Us: The Work Endures

Over at one of those geo-blogger sites, they're having another Accretionary Wedge, a collection of geology articles with a theme. This month's theme is "My Favorite Geological Illustration". Not being either a geologist or someone who discusses the subject all that much, you'd probably wonder why I'd even have an opinion on the subject. If one merely went by the things I publish here, of course, one would probably assume my favorite illustration would be some big old explosion or another, but that wouldn't be the case.

You see, as someone who doesn't know all that much about geology, I haven't seen all that many fascinating geology illustrations. When I have, quite often I didn't understand them, at least not enough to appreciate them.

Another form of illustration has always fascinated me. Here is an example, courtesy of the early 19th Century surveyor turned geologist William Smith:

Image credit: LiveScience Image Gallery/Wikimedia version modified by Cujo359

I removed the large seams from the image of the map on Wikimedia, to better show what the map might look like hanging on a wall.

As the University of New Hampshire notes:
The map itself displayed in whole is an extraordinary sight. Its size alone - about 6 feet across by 9 feet high - is dramatic. The territory mapped in detail encompasses thousands of square miles. It is well over 500 miles from Lands End to the Firth of Tay. Smith had begun his efforts to publish such a grand map about 1802 and he was early encouraged by the enthusiastic support of Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society of London, who headed the subscription list with 50 pounds - a considerable sum at the time. It was equal to half of the Royal pension that was later awarded to Smith for his accomplishment.

William Smith’s Geological Map of England and Wales and Part of Scotland, 1815-1817: Explanatory Notes
Even in the faded form I've posted here, it's a beautiful piece of work, showing both the precise application of applied mathematics, and the artistic choice of subtle, but contrasting colors to show the extent of the various geological formations that were known or suspected in England at the time. UNH has a more colorful version online than the one on Wikimedia, but in some ways the Wikimedia one is more appropriate. Faded as it is, it evokes the passage of nearly two centuries since the completion of that map.

Maps are a form of art. Map making, like engineering, is an example of applied science, the use of scientific knowledge and principles to create something. In the 19th Century, the British were among the world's premiere map makers. They needed maps so they could navigate, defend, and build on a world wide empire. Not too long after this map was created, a British surveying team would map out the Himalayas, calculating the height of some of that range's major peaks to within a few feet. To accomplish that monumental feat, they used nothing more sophisticated than a transit. Given that, and the leadership Britain and the rest of Europe maintained in science at the time, it's none too surprising that they were the first to publish a geological map.

In the case of William Smith's map, the first of its kind anywhere, the motivation was to advance scientific knowledge - applied science used in the name of science. Smith's creation of the map, the subject of Simon Winchester's The Map That Changed The World, was especially remarkable:
To emphasize what Smith considered his greatest achievement--he was the first to discover that the strata of England were in a definite order and the first to show that their fossil contents were in the same order--he published an ordered column of colored tablets that he referred to as a geological column of organic (organized) fossils in 1816 while copies of the map were still printing. (see Contents, Part III). For all its complexity the map itself was incomplete without the concomitant ordering of the fossils. Smith was probably the first to understand that both the strata and their fossil contents were in such a natural order and that it was an order of indefinitely wide extension, i.e. from local quarries to the whole of England and beyond.

William Smith’s Geological Map of England and Wales and Part of Scotland, 1815-1817: Explanatory Notes
To anyone who is in the least familiar with the idea of biological evolution or plate tectonics, there is obvious significance here. Smith's map helped lead science down the road to both, if for no other reason than that it visually illustrated an important fact about where geological deposits are and when they arrived there.

Smith's work took more than a decade. As the UNH article notes, he began it in 1802, and didn't publish the map until 1815. Even then, it wasn't complete, of course. One could say that it's still being refined to this day.

As Winchester's book makes abundantly clear, Smith paid for his obsession with maps and rocks. His work was plagiarized by people with less talent but better connections, and he ended up spending years in debtors' prison. (Ironically, a copy of his map recently sold for more than $21,000.) It was only late in his life that he was recognized by his peers for his extraordinary accomplishments. Even then, it was only the intervention of better-connected scientists and officials who took it upon themselves to right a wrong that saved him from lifelong obscurity.

As I've noted over the years, geology has many things to teach us. Here, it's taught us that in science, often times the work itself must be its own reward. It's also taught us that sometimes, that work can be appreciated for centuries afterward, long after the people who profited from it are forgotten.


Hollis said...

This is wonderful! thanks for joining in.

Dana Hunter said...

Gorgeous! Glad to see you joining the Wedge, and with such a lovely piece.

Cujo359 said...

Thanks for the kind words, Hollis and Dana.

Expat said...

One of the trophies in me library is a copy of the Geological Survey of Ireland (ISSN 0790-0260) a "Geological Guide to the Dingle Peninsula" by a George Victor Du Noyer (1817-1869) "completed the original mapping of the Dingle Peninsula for the Geological Survey of Ireland in the years around 1856." and which goes on about the survey being completed 1887 with the claim (obviously incorrect) of being the first country to have a complete survey (obviously the writer was not aware of the maps in your presentation).

Of note, it was in this survey that noted the deformation of geologic beds, that the deformation could invert the layers present to where the oldest layer was on top of younger layers. It seems this part of Europe was once connected with the North American continent (about 400 million years ago) and was a vast sandy desert but nobody took care of it and it now has an immense annual rainfall (the two local weather conditions are raining, and going to rain) and bogs. One local described the size of a pothole as being seen from low earth orbit, which would come under geological information.

Cujo359 said...

Ireland was part of the British Empire at the time. Any Irish geologists, one would think, would have been aware of William Smith's work by that time. Must be some difference in what they're calling a complete geological survey. Either that, or it's one heck of a failure to research a claim...