The weird, enchanting beauty of geology maps

Two Williams pioneered geological mapping in Britain and the United States - but the world only remembers one.

Detail of William Smith's 1815 map of the geology of Britain.

Detail of William Smith's 1815 map of the geology of Britain.

  • Science is often blamed for making the world less 'magical,' but geology maps are proof of the opposite.
  • William Smith and William Maclure produced amazing geology maps of Britain and the U.S., respectively.
  • Their pioneering work is still important – and enchanting – today; but one William's legacy outshines the other one's.


  • Weirdly beautiful maps

    Strata Smith: The Man & The Map

    William 'Strata' Smith with some of his fossils and part of his map: still from a short video by the British Geological Survey.

    Credit: YouTube

    Here's one of the worst raps science gets: it has disenchanted the world. Literally dis-enchanted it, by replacing magic with measurement. And so, it has reduced the miracle of life to the banality of being.

    There is plenty wrong with that assessment, but nowhere is it more untrue than in the field of geology. Earth scientists have given eloquent voices to the dumb mud and mute rocks beneath our feet. They've pieced together the deep history of the subterranean world – more ancient and more violent than anyone imagined. And they've produced weirdly beautiful maps like these.

    Weird, because those colors and borders resist all identification with subdivisions we're more familiar with, like political entities, climate zones or land-use types. No, geological maps strip away all those fads and deal only with the non-ephemeral: the origin and nature of the land itself.

    The map that changed the world

    'A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, with Part of Scotland; Exhibiting the Collieries and Mines, the Marshes and Fen Lands Originally Overflowed by the Sea, and the Varieties of Soil According to the Variations in the Substrata, Illustrated by the Most Descriptive Names'.

    Smith single-handedly mapped an area of more than 175,000 km2 (67,500 sq. mi). Eventually only about 400 copies of the completed map were issued in 1815. About 40 survive today.

    Image: Natural History Museum

    Arguably the most famous map in the history of geology is this one, published in 1815 by William Smith, showing the stratification of England, Wales and part of Scotland. For the first time ever, this map presented a detailed overview of the geology of an entire country.

    It set the standard for all geology maps that have followed. And it turned geology into a 'practical' science – helping industrialists locate mineable coal seams, for example. Indeed, this was "The Map that Changed the World," as described in a bestselling book of that title.

    The book, by Simon Winchester, focuses on the mapmaker's compelling life story. Nicknamed 'Strata' Smith, the lowly-born surveyor noticed how fossils occurred in predictable layers in the side of a freshly dug canal. He struck upon the idea of a stratified geological past and spent the first decade and a half of the 19th century surveying most of Britain to prove his theory.

    Ostracism and plagiarism

    William Smith\u2019s Geological section from London to Snowdon, showing the varieties of the strata, and the correct altitude of the hills.

    Accompanying Smith's map was a cross-section of the country, from Snowdon (left) to London, showing how the strata in southern England dip towards the southeast. This was effectively the first 'block diagram', now a standard feature of geographical cartography.

    Credit: Natural History Museum

    Smith's map is remarkably similar to current geological maps of Britain, proving the accuracy of his work. But he had some trouble convincing his contemporaries – which was due at least in part to class differences: London's Geological Society was a gentleman's club, not the natural milieu for a blacksmith's son.

    In his fight against social ostracism and professional plagiarism, Smith was forced to sell his fossil collection to the British Museum, lost his house and ended up in debtor's prison. Free again but still homeless, he worked as an itinerant surveyor, until one of his employers recognised him for his work and appointed him Land Steward at an estate near Scarborough.

    Smith later designed the Scarborough Rotunda, one of Britain's oldest surviving purpose-built museums. Only in 1831 was he acknowledged by the Geological Society as the 'Father of English Geology.' His work was an inspiration for Charles Darwin.

    America beats Britain by 6 years

    \u200bBedrock Geology of the UK and Ireland

    Bedrock Map of the UK and Ireland, showing science's current understanding of the geology of the islands.

    Credit: Geological Survey Ireland

    William Smith's original map can be visited at the Geological Society's headquarters at Burlington House in London, where it hangs side by side with the geological map of England and Wales by George Greenough, the Geological Society's first president and Smith's mapping rival.

    Smith's is an impressive rags-to-fame story, and his accomplishments are now widely acknowledged, thanks in large part by the Simon Winchester book.

    However, the brightly shining star of Smith's celebrity somewhat obscures the work of one of his American colleagues. In 1809, six years before Smith published his map, William Maclure produced a geological map of the United States. Although inevitably dubbed the 'Father of American Geology', Maclure has not received the bucketloads of fame (granted, mostly posthumous fame) that Smith did.

    Page-turner material

    A Map of the United States of America. By Samuel G. Lewis. Published In: Observations on the Geology of the United States, explanatory of a Geological Map. By William Maclure.

    Geological map of the United States, by William Maclure (1809). Maclure used an existing map by Samuel G. Lewis as the base map for his color-coded observations.

    Image: David Rumsey Map Collection, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    What a difference a star biographer makes. For Maclure's life story sounds like page-turner material too. A successful Scottish merchant, Maclure was rich enough to retire at 34. Settling in Virginia but moving back and forth to Europe, he devoted the rest of his life to science and philanthropy – an example of the latter was his introduction to Philadelphia of educational courses based on the principles of the Swiss innovator Pestalozzi. He later also contributed to the establishment of a utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana.

    Maclure had been bitten by the geology bug on a trip to France. In 1807, he personally started mapping the geology of the then United States, crossing and recrossing the Allegheny Mountains no less than 50 times. The monumental work took him two years to complete. Although he used a different system of classification than Smith, later surveys have confirmed the general accuracy of Maclure's observations.

    In 1817, he became the president of the newly founded Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, which he would remain almost until his death. Failing health forced him to abandon the attempt to set up an agricultural college in Indiana. He died in Mexico in 1840. In his will he provided for the establishment of 160 working men's libraries.

    The US is much bigger than in Maclure's day, and geology is much more advanced; yet the current map still builds on some of the observations he made in the early 19th century.

    The US is much bigger than in Maclure's day, and geology is much more advanced; yet the current map still builds on some of the observations he made in the early 19th century.

    Image: USGS

    Strange Maps #1046

    Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

    U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

    Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

    U.S. Navy ships

    Credit: Getty Images
    Surprising Science
    • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
    • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
    • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
    Keep reading Show less

    Hack your brain for better problem solving

    Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

    Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
    Mind & Brain

    This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

    Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

    It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

    If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

    Solve problems with others (occasionally)

    A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

    In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

    The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

    It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

    In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

    These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

    And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

    A problem-solving booster

    The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

    How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

    "Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

    One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

    Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

    Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

    That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

    And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

    Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

    Live and learn and learn some more

    Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

    Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

    In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

    Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

    • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
    • Use Design Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Tackling the World's Greatest Problems, with Tim Brown, CEO and President, IDEO
    • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
    • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
    • The Science of Successful Things: Case Studies in Product Hits and Flops, with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, and Author, Hit Makers

    Request a demo today!

    How AI learned to paint like Rembrandt

    The Rijksmuseum employed an AI to repaint lost parts of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." Here's how they did it.

    Credit: Rijksmuseum
    Culture & Religion
    • In 1715, Amsterdam's Town Hall sliced off all four outer edges of Rembrandt's priceless masterpiece so that it would fit on a wall.
    • Neural networks were used to fill in the missing pieces.
    • An unprecedented collaboration between man and machine is now on display at the Rijksmuseum.
    Keep reading Show less
    Culture & Religion

    Pragmatism: How Americans define truth

    If something is "true," it needs to be shown to work in the real world.

    Quantcast