The Most Gorgeous Map The World Has Ever Seen


“The geologist takes up the history of the earth at the point where the archaeologist leaves it, and carries it further back into remote antiquity.”  — Bal Gangadahr Tilak, The Arctic Home in the Vedas

In 1793 — the year Louis XVI is guillotined, George Washington holds his first Cabinet meeting and British troops invade Haiti — a canal digger named William Smith made a startling discovery. He found that by tracing the placement of fossils, which he uncovered in excavations, one could follow layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell — clear across England, and, indeed, right across the world — making it possible, for the first time ever, to draw a chart of the hidden underside of the earth. This is in the same year that Eli Whitney applied for a U.S. patent for his cotton gin, but though Smith’s accomplishment was every bit as important as the American inventor’s machine, you’d be hard put to find someone who’s ever heard of the English geologist.

map that changed the worldSmith spent twenty-two years piecing together the fragments of that unseen universe to create an epochal and remarkably beautiful hand-painted map. But instead of receiving accolades and honors, he ended up in a debtor’s prison, the victim of vicious plagiarism, and virtually homeless for ten years, no tears shed on his behalf… for all practical purposes.

Simon Winchester, who has written many books which have thrilled me, came out with a book called The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology around the time that the Twin Towers came down. I highly recommend that you get down with his instructive spotlight on Smith… a soul more blisteringly revolutionary than any terrorist on your short list; for one, his work served as important underlying bases for the accomplishments of Charles Darwin. If you do read the volume you’ll absorb the poignant sacrifices that served as the foundation for the world-changing discovery.

The reason activists would probably benefit from breathing in what Winchester offers up is that too many have yet to learn the lesson that carving out significant inroads costs something very dear, and that they themselves are not important. Reading about Smith might drive home the points that monumentally important contributions can be easily lost in the shuffle of history, and that one must be prepared to do even more than give one’s life for the sake of what’s more important than one’s life.

Meaning, humility and sacrifice will be essential to alter this earth. And activists must map out gorgeous new strategies, as their ugly old ones have not kept the world from falling apart.

Richard Martin Oxman can be reached at [email protected].


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