Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Niels Stensen, following academic custom and going by the name Nicolai Stenonis

The Danish anatomist and geologist Niels Stensen started his career in the seventeenth century at the University of Copenhagen, where he followed academic custom and went by the name Nicolai Stenonis. Today he is known by the name Nicolaus Steno [1-3].

He was born in Copenhagen in January of 1638—Danemark was then at war with Sweden—and died in December of 1686 in Schwerin—today the capital of the German state Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Most of his life, Steno worked, observed and researched at other places including Rostock, Amsterdam, Montpellier and Florence. In the book entitled The Seashell on the Mountaintop, Alan Cutler illuminates these locations in historical context, follows Steno's traveling and studies, and discusses his contributions to modern scientific thinking.

Steno had excellent observational skills, which he employed independently from what was known from books. Steno became a member of the Accademia del Cimento (Academy of Experiments) in Florence, Tuscany, funded by Prince Leopoldo and Grand Duke II de Medici. The academy welcomed Steno's ideas and his approach to science. Steno's findings in the hills and mountains surrounding Florence, rich in marine fossils, and his background in anatomy resulted in his celebrated formulation of the principles of stratigraphy: the law of superposition (layer-by-layer sedimentation), the principle of original horizontality and the principle of lateral continuity.

Steno was a darling of the Medici court, as Cutler writes in the prologue of his book. But today he is mostly overlooked: even visitors of the basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, while admiring art work by Michelangelo and Brunelleschi, often miss the small chapel, where an inscription on the wall above the sacrophagus gives his name as Nicolai Stenonis. Tourists barely explore corners and layers beyond the authority of their travel guide.

Steno has been brought up in the Lutheran faith and later converted to Catholicism. Rare during his time as well as today, Steno had the ability to freely discuss scientific and religous topics without compromising one for the sake of the other.

References and suggested reading
[1] Alan Cutler: The Seashell on the Mountaintop. Dutton (Penguin Group), New York, 2003; page 18.
[2] Janice Busil: Nicolaus Steno: Getting to know the unheeded genius []
[3] Maria Hirsch: Urvater der modernen Geologie [Grandfather of modern geology] FOCUS Online, January 27, 2009. [].

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