First off, I admire Simon Winchester as a researcher and a writer. This is not his most outstanding piece. I think his piece on the Yangtze River is a better book, overall. While he gets a little caught up in the voice of this book, the story is great, and touches the reader best when the focus is on people. I believe this is because Winchester is a little too close to the subject, and possibly a little too excited to pear down the words to the necessary. Even though parts of the book took me longer to get through, I really liked it, and Winchester’s passion for geology and William Smith’s work is infectious. I even wrote about my feelings on the subject in a blog entry. Winchester manages to put the information across in a captivating way without glorifying the more mundane aspects of William Smith.
The book brings something to mind for me personally: we don’t often talk about the age of the world and humanity’s relative youth in tha larger context. In fact, we rarely talk about former more diverse times than the ones we live in. We don’t think about it that way. We think about tar pits, sabre tooth tigers, Jurassic Park, and today. Today must be the best there is to offer, second only to the future, right?
Something else I think we mistakenly ignore is the history of science in a comparative context. I hadn’t realized how young geology and paleontology are in comparist with Chemistry and Physics. Why don’t we learn these things in school?
In some ways it parallels my fascination with the history of the English language, something that Winchester and I share in common. I am anxious to see what he has to say about the Oxford English Dictionary.
I wonder how many amazing people, like William Smith, we blantantly overlook in out thinking big thinks.
For more info, alan mentioned the book in cogdogblog back in December 2003. He picks out the really key points. Smith manages to bring geology into a more scientific practice, despite its implications for fundamentalists, and despite lowly class origins. Granted, the latter got the better of him for most of his life, but in the end he received the recognition he deserved. Like Alan, I appreciate a book that reads well and manages to teach me things.