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GSA celebrates 200th anniversary of William 'Strata' Smith's groundbreaking map

October 22, 2015

Boulder, CO, USA - 2015 marks the bicentenary of the publication of William Smith's groundbreaking geologic map of England, Wales, and part of Scotland. The Geological Society of America (GSA), through a three-part Pardee Symposium and closely related activities, will salute both the map and the profound ramifications of Smith's genius.

The 1815 map is stunning, scientifically and artistically. It "stands up" extraordinarily accurately to modern, technology-intensive inspection.

"Imagine anyone in the latest 18th century and earliest 19th century having the moxie, vision, brilliance, and stamina to 'take on' geological mapping of all of England, Wales, and part of Scotland," said symposium convener George Davis. "It required someone very special, and living at a special time (e.g., Napoleonic wars; industrial revolution) to pull this off."

This symposium will help us understand the times, the man, and his incredibly difficult life, and will also expand to ponder the scientific and philosophical implications of what has followed and what is to be anticipated.

The Map

Appreciation of the importance of this celebration begins with a visit to the Baltimore Convention Center Exhibits Hall where, in the GSA HQ Booth, there will be hung a 1st edition facsimile print of the Smith map. Scaled at five miles to the inch, it encompasses nearly 50 sq. ft. (6 ft. × 8 ft.). The hand-colored hues are brilliant, in part because the linen original of this facsimile was only recently discovered "hidden" in darkness in its folio box in the Burlington House, London, home of the Geological Society. The map is art and science combined. The line work and subtle application of color help underscore the fundamental objective of all geologic maps: to assert three-dimensionality of rocks and structures on a two-dimensional surface.

The Man

Smith traveled (walking, horseback, carriage) as much as 10,000 miles a year to accomplish this mapping. As Smith-authority Hugh Torrens has emphasized, Smith did this essentially singularly and alone, without permanent employment, without a dependable salary, commonly encumbered with debt. But Torrens emphasizes as well that there were two individuals without whose support Smith would not have succeeded: John Cary, who among other things produced the "New Map of England and Wales" (1794), an invaluable base map; and John Farey, a polymath "bulldog advocate of Smith." (See the "Rock Stars" article in the Sept. 2015 issue of GSA Today, http://www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/archive/25/9/pdf/i1052-5173-25-9-38.pdf).

How it Began

Smith's livelihood was as a consultant dealing with land use, hydrology, canal-transportation, coastal protection, minerals and mining, soils, and more. His formal education ended at age 11, whereupon he soon apprenticed for Edward Webb, a land surveyor. That's where he got his start.

His "aha" moment came as a canal surveyor and engineer, where he observed in long regional canal-cuts the continuity of nearly horizontal rock layers and the one-to-one association of certain particular fossils with certain particular geologic layers. He learned to project given layers, both on the subsurface and in the subsurface, over great distances. Geological mapping was almost unheard of then; Smith basically invented it, and if not that, perfected it in addressing all of England.

Today, anyone who needs a geologic map of any place in England will, for example, contact the British Geological Survey and upload a copy, with plenty of choices of scale of mapping. The same is true in the United States, for state geological surveys and the U.S. Geological Survey for more than a century have held the mission and authority for mapping all lands and making the geological maps available to the public.

Smith was making his map before geology departments were established, and before professors and their students were energetically mapping areas and regions of special interest. At the time, companies were calling upon him as a consultant to help solve practical problems lying at the interface of engineering and natural resources.

Core Concepts

Why did they go to Smith? Smith had a certain "something." That something was a grasp of the concept that the solution to problems at the interface of engineering and natural resources, including soils, required firm knowledge of rocks and geological history. This was his intellectual asset. His intellectual property, which was of immense practical value, consisted of what he learned about the earth as he carried out geological mapping. Yes, the geological map is the product. The intellectual property, however, is all that is learned about how the earth works through the act, i.e., through the process, of geological mapping. Geological mapping compels a geologist to track out every rock layer, every fault, every fold, in order to "see" the full picture three-dimensionally. Smith discovered that through this insight not only can the surface geology be recorded, but the subsurface geology can be illuminated. This is important even today, where the search for answers regarding the challenges of energy, water, mineral resources, and hazards take us into the subsurface.

There was another breakthrough concept that, astonishingly, Smith grasped, namely, working at a large scale is essential to tackling the small-scale issues. This point, which still holds for geosciences and ALL sciences, was emphasized by John Henry, who as Chair of the History of Geology Group, co-chaired the April 2015 Geological Society (of London) celebration of Smith.

With all of this in mind, GSA's celebration of Smith and his map can perhaps be more fully understood and appreciated.

Sunday, 1 Nov.

Pardee Session: Celebrating the Genius of William "Strata" Smith: Bicentennial Anniversary of Smith's Revolutionary Map

All Pardee Sessions will be held in Room 327/328/329, Baltimore Convention Center

Morning Pardee, Day 1

8-11 a.m.
  • Edmund Nickless: The historic timing of Smith's work, and the practical and applied context in which he functioned.

  • Daniel Stephens: A specific example of Smith's engineering skill.

  • Hugh Torrens, KEYNOTE SPEAKER: Smith's life.
Mark Wilson: Smith's "take" on fossils.

Celal ?engör: Limitations of Smith's view of fossils and their significance.

Afternoon Pardee, Day 1

2-4 p.m.
  • Peter Wigley: Comparing Smith's map to today's understanding.

  • Maureen Raymo: Mapping and discerning paleoclimates.

  • Larry Meinert: Mineral resources and geologic mapping.

William Smith: The Man, His Map, and the Democratization of Geology

GSA Geology and Society Division Distinguished Lecturer by Simon Winchester.

Sunday, 1 Nov., 4-5 p.m., Room 327/328/329, Baltimore Convention Center

Free and Open to the Public

Simon Winchester Book Signing, author of The Map that Changed the World

Sunday, 1 Nov., 5:45-7 p.m., Exhibit Hall, GSA HQ Booth, Baltimore Convention Center

William Smith Map Display: 1st Edition Facsimile Print

(Sponsored by the Geological Society of London)

Sunday, 1 Nov., 5:45-6:45 p.m., Exhibit Hall, GSA HQ Booth, Baltimore Convention Center

Monday, November 2

Pardee Session: Celebrating the Genius of William "Strata" Smith: Bicentennial Anniversary of Smith's Revolutionary Map

All Pardee Sessions will take place in Room 327/328/329, Baltimore Convention Center

Morning Pardee, Day 2

8 a.m.-noon

Kim Kastens: Seafloor mapping has enabled new thinking.

Bob Krantz: The 3D of geological mapping and interpretation.

Susan Beck: Mapping the deep crust and mantle.

Hap McSween: Stratigraphic mapping in planetary exploration.

Harvey Thorleifson: The upcoming century of mapping.

Rob Butler: Mapping and human reasoning.

Vic Baker: Mapping as thinking.

Renee Clary: Historical and philosophical projects for Smith's map.

Afternoon Topical Session, Day 2

Session 157 (T94). Entering Our Third Century in the Footsteps of William Smith: Status and Future of Geologic Mapping.

1:30-5:30 p.m., Baltimore Convention Center, Room 336

This session will highlight new mapping and innovations in geological mapping, including data management, Web accessibility, and applications in water and land management.

William Smith Map Display: 1st Edition Facsimile Print

(Sponsored by the Geological Society of London)

Monday, 2 Nov., 4:30-6:30 p.m., Exhibit Hall, GSA HQ Booth, Baltimore Convention Center
-end-
The Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, serves more than 27,000 members from academia, government, and industry in more than 100 countries. Through its meetings, publications, and programs, GSA enhances the professional growth of its members and promotes the geosciences in the service of humankind. GSA encourages cooperative research among earth, life, planetary, and social scientists, fosters public dialogue on geoscience issues, and supports all levels of earth science education.

Geological Society of America

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