Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the 374th birthday of Nicolas Steno. This guy could have easily qualified as one of the Dos Equis ”Most Interesting Man in the World” club members. He is perhaps best known as a pioneer of geology.
His story’s beginning is rather tragic. According to Wikipedia, he was born in Copenhagen and lived an isolated life due to an unknown disease. His father passed away when he was 6 years old. Shortly thereafter, 240 of his schoolmates died of the plague. It may have been his tumultuous childhood that inspired him to, basically, be a wanderer and literally travel the world to fulfill his curiosities.
It is nothing short of amazing to think of all that he achieved in his short life of 48 years. Throughout his travels through Europe, he met many prominent scientists who were a great influence on him. One thing that was unique about Steno was that he didn’t accept everything just because it was written in a book. He challenged the ancient philosophy and science of the day.
The Aha Moment
In 1665, Ferdinando II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and supporter of the sciences, invited Steno to Florence with the express purpose of having him build a “Cabinet of Curiosities” for the duke. Seeing that a “Cabinet of Curiosities” is a collection of natural wonders, this was right up Steno’s alley. In 1666 some fishermen caught a huge shark and the Grand Duke ordered its head to be sent to Steno for dissection. It was in researching the shark’s teeth that he realized they bore a striking resemblance to embedded stones that were seen in rock formations called “tongue stones”. Many scientists of that day and preceding considered fossils to be a natural formation in rocks. Some even believed they fell here from other planets. Steno worked to prove that not only did these rock formation look like shark teeth but that they actually were.
This research led Steno to do more research into how solid objects became embedded into rock. His interest would lead him not only to why fossils were embedded, but also how minerals, crystals, and entire layers of rock became embedded in other rock. From this research he basically became the father of stratigraphy, the study of layers in rocks. He believed that the earth’s layers formed a chronology of different living creatures in different eras. His theories influenced the sciences of geology, paleontology, crystallography, and even formed the basis of many of Darwin’s theories of natural selection.
His inquisitive mind influenced his religious beliefs, as well. He was raised as a Lutheran but was confronted with Catholicism while in Florence. In his mind, he reasoned that Catholicism “provided more sustenance for his constant inquisitiveness”. He was ordained a Priest at the age of 37 and became a strong figure in counter-reformation. Steno died while researching in Germany. In 1988 he was declared “beatus” by Pope John Paul II, which is the first step toward being declared a saint.
Reading about such a man and what he accomplished in a short amount of time causes me to reflect on my life and achievements. What was it about men of old that they were so accomplished in such a short amount of time? Maybe they weren’t as distracted by the things we are now. Perhaps they had a better grasp on the fragility of life and lived it more fully. Whatever the case, stories like this are worth being told and hopefully will inspire us to be better, ourselves.