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Stratigraphical foundations

A William Smith birthday cake, chocolate ammonites and an appearance by Sir David Attenborough. Sarah Day and Amy Whitchurch report on the launch party for “William Smith’s Fossils Reunited”.

On the eve of William Smith’s 250th birthday, Fellows and friends gathered in Burlington House, Piccadilly to celebrate the launch of the new book William Smith’s Fossils Reunited. Edited by Peter Wigley and colleagues, the book combines two of Smith’s seminal, unfinished publications—Strata Identified by Organized Fossils and A Stratigraphical System of Organized Fossils. Placed within the context of newer work, the manuscripts are republished together with stunning engravings by the illustrator and naturalist, James Sowerby, as well as new photographs of fossils from Smith’s Collection.

The authors
Left, Book authors/editors Diana Clements (l), Jill Darrell(c) and Peter Wigley (r)

After a welcome from Peter Dolan, the evening’s proceedings kicked off with an introduction from the Society’s President, Nick Rogers, who welcomed guests to the ‘spiritual home’ of geoscience. Peter Wigley then described how he, together with Jill Darrell, Diana Clements and Hugh Torrens, set about scanning and digitising Smith’s two original manuscripts, using image processing techniques to breathe new life into the plates. The team attempted to match each of the illustrations from Smith and Sowerby’s work to the original specimens from Smith’s collection, which is now housed at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. And, using Smith’s careful notes, collected during his days roaming the English countryside, the team were able to locate each of the fossil specimens on copies of Smith’s own geological maps. Smith’s life was not an easy one and financial difficulties meant he ended up in debtors’ prison before he could complete these tasks himself. It is fitting that 250 years after his birth, Peter Wigley and colleagues, aided by modern technology, can now help close that chapter for him.

David AttenboroughIn his speech, Sir David Attenborough—author of the book’s foreword—mused on how the average person has likely never heard of William Smith, yet his work helped found one of the most important natural sciences. Indeed, Sir David noted that Smith’s fossil collection, sitting in display cabinets in West London, represents the very foundation stones of the science of stratigraphy.

We were lucky enough to steal a few precious moments with Sir David during which we asked him why he felt William Smith’s work was so important. Describing William Smith as ‘one of the great founders’ of geology, he noted that the new book, a ‘marvellous document’, must have been ‘thrilling’ to produce; particularly the search for corresponding specimens at the Natural History Museum to match the images in Smith’s book.

The interviewOn the significance of geology and the history of science to our lives now, he said, ‘Science is the most important thing that any child can learn. It’s the foundation of our lives and our understanding of the world. But equally importantly, our lives and our world view are shaped by science, and we are beginning to understand where we stand in that world view.

‘If you know about science and geology and you know about what’s happening to the world, you are in a better position to understand the gravity of the situation that we find ourselves in.

‘We know from science and geology that the world is not static, that it’s always changing. We are now beginning to realise that it is changing at an astonishing, terrifying rate. If you know anything about geology and anything about palaeontology, you recognise that we are living in extraordinary times. We ought to be aware of that and aware of the responsibility we have. And that’s why geology is so important.’

Well said, Sir David.

The cakeAfter toasting William Smith, his birthday cake was cut and enjoyed, ammonite-shaped chocolates were distributed, and the book launch celebrations carried on late into the evening.

Sarah Day, Head of Media Relations & Outreach and Amy Whitchurch, Editor Geoscientist magazine

Read a review of “William Smith’s Fossil Reunited” here and order a copy of the book here: To read more about the event, which was co-hosted by the Geological Society of London and the Dolan Charitable Trust, view additional photographs and listen to our interview with Sir David Attenborough in full, please visit the Geological Society of London blog: 

Photography by Will Amlot