Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Review: The Seashell on the Mountaintop by Alan Cutler

2003, Plume Publishing, 240 pages

The Seashell on the Mountaintop
is a very welcome biography of St. Neils Stenson, also known as Nicholas Steno and about 16 other variations. The good news is that, after years of neglect, this convert, this holy man, and this founder of the science of geology is being pulled from the edge of oblivion to be remembered for his true greatness. The title of the book refers to the presence of fossil shells in the mountain soils of Italy and , among other places, and the long effort to interpret such a curiosity. As a Dane, Neils had not grown up in the presence of fossils, but he went to Italy as an adult and joined the academy that had been Galileo's fellowship a generation earlier. Here he took an interest in everything around, including the hills of Tuscany and their shells.

The geology part is interesting because Steno's ideas were so far ahead of others' that those who were interested in figuring out the fossil puzzle read them for a hundred years before they were able to take the next step in building the science. During his own lifetime, Neils was famous for he was a seminal thinker on several topics, but by the time the geologists were able to build on his work, his extraordinary personality was almost forgotten although, even today, the principles expressing our basic understanding of sedimentation are still called Steno's laws.

Cutler's gives a striking account of the competing ideas about fossils in Stenson's days – late 17th century. Did shell forms naturally grow in the soil? And if so, did they grow with breakages and wormholes and all, just as if they'd been on the shore? Were they dropped by Noah's Flood? If so, how had they come so far inland; many thought that Noah's finding a live tree branch after the flood meant it could not have brought salt water all the way inland everywhere. Cutler presents all this material thoughtfully and in a manner respectful of the mental challenges of another age, so easy to underestimate.

Not only the shells interested Neils, but also the faith of Italy, and though welcomed by the Florentine academy as a Lutheran, he became a Catholic in time, then a priest, and finally a very holy bishop of a vast tract of Lutheran Europe, for whose salvation he relinquished his scientific investigations and then sacrificed his health.

This is a good introduction to the 17th century, to geology, and to a saint with a wonderful, Renaissance mind.

Reviewed by Mary Daly (12-26-06)
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