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Alan Cutler

The Seashell on the Mountaintop

Much is made of Science vs Religion in the media nowadays. So you might be surprised to learn that the scientist who played a substantial part in initiating the scientific view of the Earth's history, Nicolaus Steno, went on to become a bishop and is now well on the way to becoming a Saint. In The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood and the Humble Genius Who Discovered a New History of the Earth Alan Cutler tells his story.

Steno was born in 1638 in Denmark and there became renowned as an anatomist. Dissections of the time had a degree of showmanship, with the anatomist finding things that he 'knew' to be there. Steno did not accept the customary wisdom and made several significant discoveries in his work. Soon he was travelling round Europe becoming interested in many of the scientific questions of the day. In particular, how did seashells come to be found on mountains a long way from the sea. Steno argued that they must have come from living creatures (a viewpoint had been popular in antiquity but had been discarded) and that the layers found in rocks originated from gradual depostion of material. Steno put forward his ideas in a book De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus, ( Preliminary discourse to a dissertation on a solid body naturally contained within a solid). Cutler explains the controversies which these ideas caused and how they gradually came to be accepted.

Steno took his religion seriously, taking up Catholicism and later became a priest. He aspired to the simple life, but was given the rather onerous job of Catholic Bishop to various parts of Protestant Northern Europe. With this he had little time for his scientific works, and hte longer book which he intended to write was never finished - even his notes for it were never found.

This is a well written, easy to read book, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the origins of modern science, and the true relationship between science and religion.  |  Chronon Critical Points  |  Recent Science Book Reviews