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Nicolas Steno tossed aside science? Readers disagree

January 12, 2012 | 11:47 am

Nicolas StenoAn article in Wednesday's Nation Now about 17th century geology pioneer Nicolas Steno has generated some robust reaction for its depiction of Steno as having shunned science for religion.

The blog post said Steno "threw it all over for God" and that Steno became “Roman Catholic in 1667 and tossed aside science. In 1675, he became a priest and in 1677 a bishop.”

Steno, the focus of Wednesday's Google Doodle, is said by some sources, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica Academic Edition, various websites and online materials as having abandoned or left science when he turned to religion. ("Who Named It?" has an interesting, detailed account of his life, and Kansas professor James Aber, who teaches Earth sciences, has written about Steno.)

Steno's work in geology -- which earned him later, lasting praise -- does appear confined to a relatively brief period before he joined the Roman Catholic Church. But reader Chris Bland, at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, notes in an email to The Times: Steno "continued to vigorously pursue science throughout his life."

Bland, who finished his doctoral degree last year and is now a breast cancer researcher, wrote that during Steno's "time with the church he studied many important aspects of the brain and the nerve system, and was planning to return to Florence to continue his research."

Sergio Phan Lung of Cal State Sacramento commented: "I like how the article fails to mention that after becoming a bishop (and later resigning to do missionary work) he did studies of the brain and the nerve system and was planning to go back to Florence to continue his research. Saying that he tossed aside science to become religious is unfair."

From Ken Kirkham: "What is interesting is the statement 'he threw it all over for God.' There are many current scientists that see no problem with science and the Bible. In many cases the 2 are in complete agreement. To diminish his continued efforts to learn, including religion, is unfortunate."

A 2006 Washington Post article by Alan Cutler, author of a book about Steno, focused on the link between Steno and religion. Cutler wrote that Steno’s finding that "the fossils and rock layers of the earth, if studied scientifically, gave a chronicle of the earth's history at least as valid as the accepted version in the verses of Genesis."

As Cutler noted, one might think that in the 17th century this wouldn't have endeared him to the Roman Catholic Church.  But no.

"Was Steno condemned? His work suppressed? Not at all. ... In fact, he was put on a fast track to priesthood and then a bishopric. To top if off, in 1988 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II."


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Image: Nicolas Steno. Credit: Wikimedia Commons