Sunday, November 23, 2003

How fish climbed mountains
Peeyush Agnihotri

The Seashell on the Mountaintop
by Alan Cutler. Heinemann, London. £ 9. Pages 228.

The Seashell on the MountaintopSometimes what’s elementary escapes the notice altogether. In other words, what is most evident receives the least attention. No wonder then that 550-million-year-old habitable Earth was geologically “discovered” by Danish scientist, Nicolaus Steno, in the 17th century, courtesy shark’s tooth that he found starkly similar to tongue stones buried as fossils under rocks along the mountainsides.

The book written by Alan Cutler, a palaeontologist at Smithsonian Institution at the US National Museum of Natural History, is a tribute to this nimble-fingered anatomist-cum-geologist, who later became a Bishop and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988, nearly 300 years post demise.

Dubbed Father of Modern Geology, Neils Stensen, alias Nicolaus Steno, was born in the family of a well-to-do goldsmith in January, 1638. However, after the death of his father, he faced unsettled early years that later became a part of his life. He never owned a home, never ever lived in one city for more than three years and never ever had a steady source of income.

Those were the days when Europe was in transition and the Renaissance had run its course. The Age of Enlightenment, on the other hand, was barely on the horizon. As the book says: “It was an awkward, in-between age — reborn, reformed, but not yet enlightened.”

Profession then was either hereditary or by virtue of one’s taste sans formal education. Also, any scientific discovery at that time could trigger off a religious avalanche, simply because the Bible’s words were prophecy. Any viewpoint against the clergy was blasphemy punishable with death.

Steno, who was gifted with a logical scientific mind and deft fingers, was employed as an anatomist in the court of Grand Duke Ferdinando II in Florence, Italy. Famed for his acute power of observation and preternatural skill with scalpel, he is credited with many biological discoveries, including that of the salivary and lacrymal (tear producing) glands, heart muscles and brain lobes. Discourse on the Anatomy of the Brain is his best-remembered anatomical work and Stensen’s duct, which carries saliva from the parotid gland to the mouth, has been named after him.

It was in the court of the Duke that during the course of dissection of a shark’s head, Steno found that its teeth were just like glossopetrae, or tongue stones, found buried under the strata of rocks over hilltops and known for their magical, even curative, properties.

This woke up the geologist in him and he set off digging across Europe to excavate seashells and marine remnants buried under sedimentary rocks. Italy, which was dotted with mountains, mines and volcanic fumaroles, provided vast opportunities, in particular.

Steno not only dug for fossils but also investigated how mineral crystals became geometrically regular to an astonishing degree and beautifully transparent.

The author writes: “To explain tongue stones, Steno had taken on the problem of explaining fossil seashells and all other marine bodies found in rocks. To explain fossils, he had taken on the problem of explaining the formation of rocks. Now, he would need to explain the production of natural solids in general.”

Just as his jotted-down medical observations became a landmark, so did De Solido, a 78-paged masterpiece that he wrote after two years of hard work and intensive geological observations. Three of these observations — principle of superposition, principle of original horizontality and principle of lateral continuity — have been immortalised as Steno’s Principles and are taught to every student of geology. He held artists like Leonardo da Vinci, who had drawn layers of rocks with minutest details centuries ago, in awe. He has even been quoted as saying: “Artists observe the body more accurately than the scientists.” As for the rock layers, he observed that “the Earth is composed of layers superimposed on each other at an angle to the horizon.”

During his lifetime, Steno rubbed shoulders with top scientists and physicians. Notable among them were Borch, Redi, Bartholin, Hooke, Boyle and Lister. After De Solido, Steno entered priesthood, relinquishing scientific research. He died at 48 (November 25, 1686) due to renal complications. It needs a scientific mind and rational intellect to unravel the mysteries of Mother Nature

Apples might have fallen zillion times before one actually did in front of Newton, who promptly enunciated the Gravitational Law Similarly, multiple feet would have trampled those seashells entombed in rocks, but when Steno set his feet on these, he laid down the rules of stratigraphy. He unravelled those geological mysteries that many top-notch researchers were unable to fathom. It was the “hitherto unknown” that kept this diminutive Father of Modern Geology going. To borrow his aphorism: Beautiful is what we see… more beautiful is what we understand…most beautiful is what we do not comprehend.