NASA and William Smith and me

Combe Hay locks

I’ve long been a fan of NASA’s Earth Observatory site, and long been interested in the life and works of William Smith, the engineer and canal builder who, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, realised the importance of fossils for identifying rock strata and came up with the concept of Faunal Succession. He also drew the world’s first geological map, of an area surrounding Bath in which he was busy with his day job, building canals.

So you can imagine how chuffed I am that the Earth Observatory team has used one of my photos to illustrate a lengthy essay about Smith’s life and work. It covers all the essentials of Smith’s life: his dedication to science, his unfortunate failure to stay solvent and his subsequent spell in a debtors prison, and his eventual recognition as one of the most important founders of geological thought.

The article also taught me one or two things I didn’t already know about Smith: I had no idea that the Colliers Way existed, so I plan to walk or bike it soon; and along the way I shall look out for this monument to Smith designed by artist Jerry Ortmans.

It’s hard to explain a love of geology. It probably started when I was a kid, because fossils are easy to find in the clay cliffs above the beach at Folkestone, my home town. We used to go down to the beach for an afternoon of playing in the sand and fossil hunting. Later, I was lucky to have a good teacher of geology who made the science bits more fun (even though my feeble brain didn’t absorb very much of it). Today I just love the experience of picking up rocks that might be many hundreds of millions of years old, of gently cracking them open, and finding within a tiny fossilised creature or plant that hasn’t been exposed to air or daylight in all that time. Picking up chunks of evolution on a windy beach in the rain, staring at a thing that lived and reproduced and died so incredibly long ago; and here it is in my hand, very nearly living again.

(12th May 2008)