Prophet of the Rocks

Richard Fortey

  • The Map that Changed the World: The Tale of William Smith and the Birth of a Science by Simon Winchester
    Viking, 338 pp, £12.99, August 2001, ISBN 0 670 88407 3

The birth of almost every science has been achieved with the help of a map. Astronomy began by mapping the stars. Anatomy – and modern medicine – is indebted to those flayed bodies laid out with such excruciating clarity in Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica. Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements gave inorganic chemistry its logic: the famous chart, which used to be posted on the wall of every chemistry laboratory like a sacred text, is as much map as matrix. Even today, in physiology laboratories, the brain is being anatomised in terms of the cortical areas responsible for one piece of sensory integration or another: a subtle mapping that has replaced centuries of speculation – a kind of objective phrenology.

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