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Paleontologists argue about which living organisms were first. In exchange, we living organisms get to argue about who was the the first paleontologist. There are many potential answers: the Greek philosophers/natural scientists Xenophanes, Herodotus, & Eratosthenes all wrote about fossils and recognized that parts of the land were once under water. Likewise the Roman geographer Strabo theorized about volcanism, subduction, and, most importantly, deposition. Pliny labored to apprehend the relationships between living creatures (and how they related to vanished or mythological beasts). A Medieval Perisan Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in Europe) came up with a theory concerning the petrification of living things while the Chinese naturalist Shen Kuo recognized that climate and ecology changed over time (based on his studies of petrified bamboo).

However, to my eyes, the first paleontologist was an altogether more peculiar figure–a Baroque Danish polymath named Nicolas Steno who lived from 1638 to 1686. The son of a goldsmith, Steno moved through the scintillant aristocratic courts of Northern Europe in his era and thus knew Spinoza, de Graaf Ruysch, Lister, and Bourdelot (along with lots of aristocrats and churchmen who were probably all-important for securing patronage back then but about whom we are no longer obliged to care). As you can probably tell from the list of names I have given, Steno was dirst an anatomist, and it is through a strange quirk of dissection that he made a name for himself as a geology/paleontology pioneer.

In 1666 two Ligurian fishermen caught a colossal shark which they presented to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de’ Medici, who had the presence of mind to order it sent to Steno for dissection. Steno dissected the shark’s head and discovered that its teeth were extremely similar to stony objects discovered within the earth (then known as “tongue stones” but now called “fossilized shark teeth”). These mysterious triangles were once thought to have been hidden by imps or to have fallen from the moon. Steno recognized they came from sharks (perhaps giant sharks killed by the Biblical flood ?) and he devised a hypothesis for how they further came to be inside of rocks. Steno devised a theory of stratigraphy (a discipline of which he is arguably the founder). His four principles of stratigraphy laid the bedrock (heh heh heh) for Lyell, Hutton, and Darwin to piece together an accurate record of events on Earth. These four principles are:

  1. the law of superposition (older layers lie beneath more recent layers…just like upon a cluttered desk)
  2. the principle of original horizontality: (thanks to gravity, layers are horizontal when deposited)
  3. the principle of lateral continuity: (layers within a basin extend in all directions according to the manner and order of their deposition and are contiguous)
  4. the principle of cross-cutting relationships: if a disconuity cuts through a layer, it must be more recent than the strata

These principles seem childishly obvious to anyone who has ever made a sand sculpture–and they are in fact beautifully brilliantly obvious. Yet nobody had stated them together in the context of natural history or applied them properly to the stones beneath us. Indeed it would take another hundred years for scientific consensus to grasp their astonishing power and scope.

Sadly, Steno became interested in theological conundrums (and in the worldly power of the church). He converted to Catholicism and was ordained a priest. Soon he became involved in the counter reformation (where he found a new role arguing with Leibniz and censoring Spinoza). Thanks to his self-abnegating piety and devotion he was even raised to the rank of auxiliary bishop. His story becomes filled with weird hagiographic details like how he sold the bishop’s ring and cross to help the poor and how he ate so little that he, um died.

Steno was not unique among geology pioneers in being a churchman. However he is unique in that he has been beatified (Pope John Paul beatified him in 1988). According to the tenants of Catholicism, if you pray to Nicolas Steno he can intercede upon your behalf in heaven! However I recommend that you do not pay attention to such holy claptrap, but instead keep looking at interesting rocks and cool fish. That is where the real beatification occurs.

Bust of Sir William Herschel

Happy Birthday to Sir Frederick William Herschel. who was born on November 15th 1738! Ferrebeekeeper has touched on Herschel’s scientific and musical accomplishments and we have also explored his convictions concerning extraterrestrial life, but have what have we done lately to commemorate the long deceased astronomer and his contributions to human knowledge?

…other than photoshop this cake (sorry Seth)….

 That’s why we’re observing the great man’s birthday by listing a few of Herschel’s additional accomplishments (which didn’t fit in the prior, overlong post) and by making some brief comments concerning multi-disciplinary polymaths–who are rapidly disappearing in a world of myopic specialists.  Perhaps this will in some way suffice to memorialize this personal hero.

Although Sir William is principally known as an astronomer, he regarded himself as a well-rounded man of science and studied many other disciplines both in and out of the sciences.  Indeed one of his more remarkable discoveries–that non-visible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation exist–is really a physics discovery rather than an astronomy discovery (although the disciplines are allied).  However Sir William also worked in the natural sciences, and is credited with an important biological discovery.  Prior to his time, coral was regarded as a plant.  Sir William got out his microscope and made some direct observations of coral cells. He concluded that since coral cells had the same thin membranes as animal cells, the organism was an animal.  Such is of course the case and today’s aquarium docents patiently explain to first-graders that corals and siphonophorae are actually creatures (although they, cnidarians, lack central nervous systems and can’t even enjoy basic sensations, much less book-of-the-month).   Sir William was an ideal renaissance man whose intellect and creativity allowed him insights into many different fields–which segues us to contemplating the scientific community of the present.

A microscope photograph of mushroom coral (by James Nicholson)

Contrary to what we might expect, today Sir William would probably find no place in the professional sciences (astronomy, physics, biology, or otherwise).  For in the sciences, as in other realms of academia, the gownless are vehemently cast out.  Someone who spent so much time practicing oboe and composing symphonies would never be able to get through the mountain of information necessary for an unfortunately named BS degree (to say nothing about attaining the doctorate so necessary to research and publish).  

Of course it’s admirable that we train our scientists at such immense length in specialized accredited schools.  And it’s also necessary! Any freshman scientist has his head swimming with a gigantic amount of information because science itself has grown.  Each branch of science is broader and wider and deeper (and other dimensions that non-scientists have no names for) every year.  Only people who have tremendous self-discipline and an advanced knowledge of where they want to go in life (no to mention substantial smarts) can travel such a path, and even these paragons can only choose one path each. 

Men like Herschel traveled the frontiers of science the way that men like Jim Bowie traveled the frontiers.  They are legends who opened up new realms–but we might not have any place for either one today (or more likely they would both be anonymous consultants battling the Washington beltway to their midlevel office jobs).  

"What the hell kind of simile was that?"

I mention all of this because I love and revere science but, despite trying to keep up, I am increasingly baffled. Scientists express their dismay at the laughable opinions of the layperson, but science stands in danger of becoming a mystery cult assessable only to the ridiculously highly educated.  I don’t have any solutions or suggestions about this.  Unlike some fields of endeavor I could name, science is not complicated because of politics or insidious Wall Street insiders.  It’s complicated because it’s complicated.  Only continuous studying and striving can allow scientists to push back the boundaries of human understanding (even as the rest of us connive to sell insurance and plastic junk to each other). That seemingly precludes brilliant crossovers. Strange visionary outsiders like Herschel no longer contribute their insights and talents, which is a great pity.  

Pictured: Science

I’m sorry I strayed into personal opinion there.  Perhaps some actual scientists can set me straight concerning interdisciplinary methodology within their fields.  In the mean time have some birthday cake and join me in waiting for the next polymath to give us a brilliant discovery which opens up the universe to the rest of us.

Herschel's Reflecting Telescope at Slough

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