Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Google and Steno

In case you did not notice, Google let us know that it is Steno's birthday. Steno can be viewed as the first published geologist. Steno's Principles are nicely demonstrated in the Google image and are taught in all introductory geology classes: law of superposition, principle of original horizontality, and principle of lateral continuity.

The shells in the Google image are fitting as well because Steno accurately solved the puzzle of seashells in rocks and determined that they must be fossils - former living animals. This was a hotly contested issue at the time both scientifically and philosophically. Steno certainly was not the first to propose that shells were formerly living animals, but what he did was state the beginnings of an entirely new science. Furthermore he understood the mineralogy of replacement and explained that shell or bone or wood could be replaced particle by particle by minerals precipitating out of liquid within sediments.  

The idea that shells in rocks in mountains posed a deep philosophical and religious problem because so many of the shells had no living counterpart. It raised the possibility of extinction of species. An issue that science and philosophy struggled with until Darwin. And for some still a terrible dilemma that they can not accept without their entire belief system crumbling.

Steno's principles and ideas on shells were not readily accepted by what was then the scientific community. However, those interested in mining and mineral surveys took up his principles right away. This was reflected by the fact that his thesis De solido was reprinted not only in Latin but in French as well. The non academic geology had been born and was being practiced.

Steno abandoned science shortly after he published his De solido. He took a vow of poverty and became a priest and served as a bishop. He was deeply devout and is being considered for sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church.

Steno showed his spiritual side even as a scientist when he stated:

               Beautiful is what we see.
               More beautiful is what we understand
               Most beautiful is what we do not comprehend

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