Today, we solve a riddle about a stone within a
stone. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Nicolaus Steno was born in
Denmark in 1638. He studied medicine and did fine
anatomical work while he was young. At 27 he became
physician to the Grand Duke of Florence. There, he
converted to Catholicism. Twelve years later he
became bishop to the Catholics in the Protestant
Just after he came to Florence, he wrote a book on
geology. The title was Introduction to a
Dissertation on a Solid Body Contained Within a
Solid. Then his attention turned to the
church. He never wrote the full dissertation.
Steno left scholars confused. We credit him with
pointing out that angles between crystal faces
don't change with size and shape. But that was just
an offhand remark in a figure caption. His book
dealt with other things entirely.
Steno was fascinated by stony inclusions -- one
rock inside another. He observed their form with an
artist's eye. Suddenly he saw two entirely
different kinds of inclusion. In one, a hard inner
substance has filled a cavity in the outer rock. In
the other, the outer rock has shaped itself around
an inner one.
Crystal inclusions and veins of metal fill rocks
in. But sediment forms itself around fossils. The
trouble is, fossils were unknown in Steno's day.
One inclusion looked like a sea shell. Another, a
vein of quartz, might be shaped like the letter Z.
God had just as mystically left one there as He had
Steno changed all that by seeing that the two
things must have been put there by different means.
He saw that the image of a sea shell wasn't an
image at all. It was the vestige of a real shell --
that sedimentary rock had formed around it.
And so the world we knew began to change. Steno's
Earth couldn't have been formed in one sidereal
day. It was made by long sequences of events. He
put us on the road to creating a history for Earth.
Stephen Jay Gould laments the way we read Steno
today. The book looks primitively simple.
Twentieth-century readers miss his question: "Of
the two rocks -- inner and outer -- which formed
itself to the other?" We grasp for direct insights
like the one about crystal angles. What Steno
really gave us was a whole new way of looking at
Now the Catholic Church has begun the process of
declaring Bishop Steno a saint. Not too many
scientists can claim that distinction. But maybe
the community of scientists should lay its own
mantle of sainthood on this remarkable man who saw
so clearly -- wherever he turned his eyes.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds