That’s So Second Millennium

Episode 022 - Nicolaus Steno (Niels Stensen) - The Protogeologist

August 27, 2018

In this episode we discuss the life and times of one Blessed Niels Stensen (Latinized as Nicolaus Steno), a Dane who laid down the basic principles that undergird the whole science of geology, from paleontology to stratigraphy to mineralogy and crystallography. Our discussion in the podcast is indebted to The Seashell on the Mountaintop by Alan Cutler.

To better understand the impact of Steno's times on his thought and vice versa, we have to discuss extensively the intellectual world of the seventeenth century. If the thirteenth century saw a grand synthesis of Christian teachings with the best that ancient Greek philosophy had to offer, the seventeeth century was a time of vicious bickering over the Bible and between people just beginning the arduous task of observing the natural world and coming up with theories to interpret how it worked that were actually consistent with the observations. It was a time where we see the very beginnings of ideas that now are bedrock (pardon the pun) parts of our understanding of the world adrift in a sea of other ideas that now sound outright insane.

Steno bequeathed several principles of interpretation. Three (or so...depending on how one names and numbers them) have to do with rocks and fossils (at that time, "fossil" could mean almost any notable object embedded in a rock, whether the remnant of a living thing or a crystal or what we would now call a sedimentary structure, such as a raindrop cast or a ripple mark) and the order in which they formed; the fourth has to do with crystals, and allows one to distinguish crystals of different minerals. They are the laws of superposition, inclusion and/or cross-cutting relationships, original horizontality, and constant interfacial angles.

If you're interested in hearing another take on this brilliant and enigmatic man, you can now watch Andrew Sicree's talk from the Society of Catholic Scientists conference (discussed in last month's episode).