Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  

The Seashell on the Mountaintop

Recommended Posts

Luna has recommended this book several times and I finally took the hint and read it.  I'm very glad I did and can only assume that Luna's review was lost in one of the Great Disappearances.  Perhaps I should refer to those events as the "Great Extinctions" since we're in the nature area.


In any event, the book discusses the life and scientific discoveries of Nicolaus Steno (1638-1686), who for a brief and magical time was a scientist in the employ of the Medicis in Florence.  Then that job disappeared and Steno suddenly and dramatically converted to Catholicism at a time when his native Denmark was very strongly Protestant.  He has actually been beatified (in 1988) and the book discusses his religious life, but the focus is usually on his scientific discoveries.  


In the beginning, Steno's discoveries were all medical.  He was a gifted anatomist and discovered the salivary gland and determined that the heart was merely a muscle, not some sort of special seat of the soul or whatever.


His big discovery came when a enormous shark's head was delivered to the Medici laboratories and he noted that the teeth of the shark looked a lot like these unusual rocks that were found all over Italy called "glossopetrae" or "tongue stones."  While we would, of course, recognize them as fossil sharks' teeth, the accepted science of the time rejected any history that was longer than the 6,000 years or so specified by the Bible.  The explanations for what they were believed to be, given this time period limit, are all very amusing, although I don't like to laugh at what people thought before they had the benefit of all the scientific discoveries that we have today.   Still, it's hard not to marvel at the knots people will tie themselves in trying to explain obvious facts that don't fit with their prejudices (and wonder which of our explanations will seem this comical in the future).  Since, to the 17th Century mind, these fossil shark teeth couldn't come from sharks because they were found on land and in abundance and since they were found scattered on the ground--perhaps they fell from the sky?  But no one had seen them fall, so Pliny (Pliny!) theorized that they fell only on dark, moonless nights.    


His big theory had to do with stratigraphy and several of his principles are still used today: Superposition (at the time when any stratum was being formed, nothing above it existed), principle of original horizonality, and principle of lateral continuity (unless interrupted).  


Steno was a very original thinker at a time when original thinking was just starting to be valued and so his story is very interesting.  If you like this kind of thing at all, this book is well-written and very interesting.  Besides, don't you want to know the scientific theory of how God could possibly have decided to put tapeworms in Eden?

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this