Sunday, July 31, 2011

The term “fossil fuel,” a linguistic relic from the time when anything dug from the earth was a fossil

The modern term “fossil fuel” is a linguistic relic from the sixteenth century and earlier times when any natural object or substance dug from underground was a fossil [1]. Famous for his masterpieces Opera Botanica (Work on Botanics) [2] and Historiae Animalium (History of Animals) [3], the naturalist Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) [4], with the latinized name Conradi Gesneri, published his book On Fossil Objects in 1565, in which the term “fossil” referred to any interesting object found in the ground [5].

In the seventeenth century, when the Dutch anatomist and geologist Nicolaus Steno formulated geologic principles on a scientific basis, the term “fossil” still had this broad meaning. But progress in geology, initiated in Steno's time, eventually changed the meaning to its modern use. Today the term “fossil” is typically confined to the preserved remains of ancient plants or animal life, including wood, bones, teeth and shells [1]. Fossil fuels are decomposition products of organisms living in the past. With recent progress in analytical chemistry and biochemistry, the word “fossil” is conquering nanoscience with terms such as “fossil molecule,” referring to chemical compounds originating from ancient life on earth  (see, for example, crenarchaeol, derived from crenarchaea).

Keynotes: fossils, paleontology, natural history, historical books, bibliophily.

References and more to explore
[1] Alan Cutler: The Seashell on the Mountaintop. Dutton (Penguin Group), New York, 2003; page 31.
[2] Conradi Gesneri: Opera botanica [].
[3] Virtually, turn the pages and see the illustrations in Conrad Gesner's Historiae Animalium [].
[4] Conrad Gesner Physician, Scholar, Scientist 1516-1565  [].
[5] History of Science: Konrad Gesner, posted Jan. 18, 2011:

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