Guest Videos: William Smith

Back in the 1980s, one of our undergrad geology teachers took us out on a field trip to a local park one day. He gave us enough time to enjoy being out of the classroom and among beautiful limestone cliff scenery. Then he gave us long measuring poles and sent us down to the bottom of a steep hill topped by said cliffs.

It was the tree-covered, roughly 45-degree hillside that goes out of the frame, lower left, and down about a hundred vertical feet. We had to work our way back up to this path. (J. Bret Bennington. Public domain)

From there, we had to slowly work our way up to the top, measuring as we went, observing rocks, noting them in field books and describing them to identify the formation.

It was hard physical work and it was also the first real test that separates geologists from mere mortals. Some students, by the time they reached the top, had decided to go into a different major. Others were hooked.

I remember sitting up at the top, resting after that exertion. My glance fell on a large rock that had been set up near the parking area because it was a nice shade of gray with lots of little details in it. For the first time ever, I could read those details a little, thanks to my newly awakened observational skills, and I saw in there, believe it or not, a cascade of mud off a coastal plain down into the abyssal depths of a long-vanished ocean, and one ancient stromatolite, turned topsy-turvy in the disaster. It was like reading a book–that, rather than whether or not I was correct, hooked me forever on geoscience.

Others, who did focus on getting things right became professional geologists (which I am not). They learned how to make geological maps, which are amazing.

But who made the first maps, before there was modern equipment or any earlier to work to study?

William Smith did.

And he will explain to you in a typically understated British way that makes our 21st-century eyes glass over until we think about it and realize the incredible progress this geoscientist’s work made possible.

Featured image: William Smith’s map of England and Wales. Source.

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