Historical Figure Meme - Reading Rocks

Feb 25 2008 Published by under Misc Science, Science

Wilkins just tagged me with one of those blog meme things. Apparently, he thinks that I've nothing better to do with my time (and, unfortunately, he's totally correct about that). This particular meme involves historical figures. The rules are simple:

1) Link to the person who tagged you.

2) List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.

3) Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.

4) Let the person know they have been tagged by leaving a note on their blog.

I'm going to do what both Wilkins and Myers did, and pick someone who probably wouldn't ordinarily come to mind. Those two aristocrats picked members of the nobility. I'm commoner than they are, so I'm going to go with a clergyman who started out from more middle-class roots: The Blessed Niels Stensen (1638-1686), Titular Bishop of Titiopolis.

If you're familiar with geology, you probably know Stensen better by the Latinized version of his name: Nicolas Steno.

1) Steno is probably best known for his contributions to geology. His 1669 book De Solido Intra Solidum Naturaliter Contento Dissertationis Prodromus (A Prodromus to a Dissertation on Solids Naturally Contained Within Solids) deals with a number of different topics. One of those was the formation of the different layers that can be seen in sedimentary rocks. In the space of five pages, Steno demonstrated that the rocks have a history, and that we can use what we know about that history to learn some of that history. Many of the concepts that he outlined there are as relevant and important today as they were when they were first written. (Scherz & Pollock, 1969; Gould, 1983)

2) Steno was raised as a Lutheran, converted to Catholicism during his time at the de Medici court, and eventually stopped practicing science in favor of joining the priesthood. He was promoted to bishop, and given the title of "Titular Bishop of Titiopolis". Titular bishops were nominally assigned to be responsible for areas in non-Christian lands. Many of them - including Steno - actually worked in the protestant areas within Europe. This practice basically allowed the Church to put bishops into those areas without pissing off the local rulers too much. (Cutler, 2003)

3) Steno probably did more to irritate the nobles and local church officials as a bishop than he did as a scientist. He had a pesky habit of doing things like chastising them for their corruption, advocating on behalf of the poor, and actually living a life of poverty. (He even reportedly sold his bishop's cross and ring and gave the money away.) Because of the admiration that he earned in some quarters as a result of the things I mentioned above, Steno was eventually beatified. He hasn't progressed on up the ladder to sainthood, though. Not enough miracles have been attributed to the scientist in question. (Cutler, 2003)

4) It's probably worth noting that Steno's work shows that the relationship between science and the Catholic Church at the time was a lot more complex than is often depicted. Galileo's work was still officially condemned, but Steno's work had no difficulties making it passed the censors.

5) In addition to his geological and religious studies, Steno was also a gifted student of anatomy. In 1667, he published a report on the dissection of a shark's head. He noted the similarity between the shark's teeth and the fossils that were then known as "tongue stones." In the process, he became one of the early advocates for the then somewhat heretical idea that things found inside rocks that look like parts of animals really were parts of animals once. (Scherz & Pollock, 1969; Cutler, 2003)

6) Steno discovered the duct that connects the parotid (salivary) gland to the mouth. This duct is sometimes called "Stensen's Duct" in his honor. He also discovered the tear ducts. (Cutler, 2003)

7) Steno also discovered that mammalian eggs are produced by the ovaries (a term which he coined). He made this discovery after noticing that this was the case in the dogfish and sharks that he was studying at the time, which makes him one of the earliest scientists to use other animals as a model for what happens in humans. (Wourms, 1997)

That's the historical stuff. Now comes the fun part: who do I tag?

Let's see: there are some other ScienceBloggers who are interested in geology, and/or have been posting stuff on the history of science, so let's tag a couple of them - Chris and Brian. Bora's usually up for a good meme, so we'll throw him in. Chad and Martin can get us away from the biology/geology thing, The Ridger will add a non-Sb perspective, and my brother Dan can get us out of science entirely.

References:

"The Seashell on the Mountaintop" (Alan Cutler)

"Geological Papers" (Steno (Ed. by Gustav Scherz; Trans. by Alex J. Pollock).)

"Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes" (Stephen Jay Gould)

Wourms, John P. 1997. The Rise of Fish Embryology in the Nineteenth Century. American Zoologist v. 37(3) pp. 269-310.

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