Updated: Jun 7, 2021
Today we go back to year 1638 when Nicholas Steno was born in Copenhagen. He was recently commemorated with a Google Doodle as the founder of Geology. We look at his life, his education and upbringing as a Lutheran, how and why he eventually became a Catholic Bishop, and his ground-breaking scientific work and legacy.
Born in Copenhagen on new years day at a time when the Julian Calendar was used to record his birth. The date has since been recalculated by a more accurate Calendar, promulgated in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. Worldwide adoption of this revised calendar, which became known as the Gregorian calendar was adopted by different countries in stages, often reflecting their relationship with the papacy, but achieving worldwide adoption by the beginning of the 20th Century. According to this recalculation, Nicolas Steno was born, on today January 11th 1638.
Nicholas Steno was born into an era when the accepted knowledge of the natural world was being challenged. The son of a Lutheran goldsmith who worked for the King of Denmark, Steno received a first-rate classical education before entering the University of Copenhagen to study medicine. On qualification he travelled throughout Europe meeting many prominent scientists and started to develop his own theories. For instance, on reading Descartes study on the working of the brain, Steno doubted his explanation of the origin of tears as being produced by the brain. Similarly, when Steno studied the boiled heart of a cow, he determined that it was an ordinary muscle and not the centre of warmth as Galen and Descartes believed. He took up a position as the professor of anatomy at the University of Padua. Whilst in Italy he watched a Corpus Christi procession that made him question his beliefs, embarking on theological studies he was ordained a Catholic priest at the age of 37 and then three years later became Vicar Apostolic for the Nordic Missions and was consecrated titular bishop of Titiopolis. Moving back to Scandanavia he continued his scientific work alongside his pastoral duties.
His biggest scientific legacy is in the field of Geology. His investigations on fossils and rock formation have led scholars to consider him one of the founders of modern stratigraphy and modern geology. In October 1666 two fishermen caught a huge female shark near the town of Livorno, and its head was sent to Steno. After dissecting the head he noted that the shark's teeth bore a striking resemblance to certain stony objects, found embedded within rock formations. The origin of fossils at the time was a live debate with ancient authorities. Some followed Pliny in suggesting that these stones fell from the sky or from the Moon. Others argued that fossils naturally grew in the rocks and were an inherent characteristic of the earth. However, there was an emerging theory that fossils were organic and Steno’s publication by comparing some fossils to the living sharks' teeth, arguing that the chemical composition of fossils could be altered without changing their form.
In this rapidly advancing field of discovery Steno was a pioneer and only two years later would produce theories in stratigraphy (the classification of different layers of rock) and crystallography that are still viable today. After his death in 1686, Steno was venerated as a saint in the diocese of Hildesheim, and although not yet declared a saint opened as part of the beatification process. He was declared "beatus" — the third of four steps to being declared a saint — by Pope John Paul II in 1988. On 11 January 2012, Steno was commemorated with a Google doodle as the founder of geology. Impact craters on Mars and the Moon are named in his honour as well as the mineral Stenonite.