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Nicolas Steno, 17th century myth buster, gets Google Doodle

January 11, 2012 |  8:42 am

Nicolas StenoNicolas Steno, recipient of a Google Doodle on Wednesday, was a 17th century brainiac with the type of weird genius that led to his discovery of the human salivary duct and a made him a pioneer in geology. But in the end, he threw it all over for God.

It was Steno, born this day in 1638, who slapped his forehead and said: "Hey, you can see history in these layered rocks." That simple yet profound observation was at the core of a 1669 treatise with a long and windy name: "The Prodromus of Nicolaus Steno's Dissertation Concerning a Solid Body Enclosed by Process of Nature Within a Solid."

Because of "Prodromus," many now see Steno as the "father of geology," according to James Aber, geology professor at Kansas' Emporia State University. But Steno's geology career lasted all of three years. And at the time, his contemporaries pooh-poohed him.

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Steno was born in Copenhagen into a family of well-to-do Lutheran goldsmiths. His later fame was perhaps fated: "Sten" in Danish is "rock." So his surname (Stensen, to the Danes) means "Son of Rocky," Aber notes.

Steno started out studying medicine, which took him to Amsterdam for a study of human anatomy. There, the Son of Rocky had his first  eureka moment when he discovered the parotid salivary duct -- also called the Stensen's duct. Obviously. At least he was appreciated as a physician -- he was appointed personal doctor to Grand Duke Ferdinand II in 1665.

For reasons not quite clear, the duke requested in 1666 that Steno dissect the head of a large shark.

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The good doctor concluded that shark teeth were identical to "glossopetrae" found in rocks.

To put this in perspective, glossopetrae -- fossilized shark teeth -- were at one time believed to have magical properties. In the Middle Ages, it was thought they were tongues of serpents that Saint Paul had turned to stone while visiting the islands of Malta. Thus they were called glossopetrae or "tongue stones." Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) thought they fell from the sky during lunar eclipses.

From sharks' teeth, Steno went on to other solid objects found inside other solid objects -- i.e. a layer of rock.  His reasoning came to be known as "Steno's law of superposition," according to the University of California Museum of Paleontology -- layers of rock are arranged in a time sequence from oldest to youngest with youngest on the top "unless later processes disturb this arrangement."

After making such scientific observations -- at the time underappreciated -- Steno got religion.

He became Roman Catholic in 1667 and tossed aside science. In 1675, he became a priest and in 1677 a bishop. He was apostolic vicar  of northern Germany and Scandinavia and spent the remainder of his life -- which wasn't that long -- doing missionary work. He died at age 48.

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-- Amy Hubbard

Image: Nicolas Steno. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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