The Seashell on the Mountaintop
Alan Cutler
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Buy *The Seashell on the Mountaintop: How Nicolaus Steno Solved an Ancient Mystery and Created a Science of the Earth* online

The Seashell on the Mountaintop: How Nicolaus Steno Solved an Ancient Mystery and Created a Science of the Earth
Alan Cutler
240 pages
April 2004
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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It all began with a simple question: How did the fossils of seashells end up on the tops of mountains? For seventeenth-century scientists with only the Biblical tales of the earth’s creation to contend with, theories abounded and the implications were baffling - until a brilliant anatomist named Nicolaus Steno took on the matter and became known as the founding father of geology. His growing obsession with these strangely misplaced fossils led to one of the greatest scientific discoveries of humankind: the actual process for correctly determining the age of the planet itself.

Steno, whose name is often forgotten in the annals of great scientific heroes, dared to look beyond the pages of the Bible where many other scientists of his time were finding their answers for such questions. He began looking in the mountains themselves for direct evidence and proof of his theory of how the geological process of the world evolved over eons. But, at the same time, he was making a name for himself with his groundbreaking research and his innovative scientific discoveries, he was also becoming more and more attracted to the call of priesthood. He eventually would turn his back on his scientific genius and take on vows of poverty as a Catholic priest.

This fascinating and highly readable glimpse into the life of a man who literally created an entire earth science, then became a devout priest and a beatified saint of the Catholic Church long after his death, melds the worlds of religion and science and displays the constant battle between the two in man’s efforts to understand the workings of the world around him. Author Alan Cutler, with a Ph.D. in Geology, weaves a web of thrills and mystery as we walk with Steno through the various phases of his research and his discovery, despite constant pressure from outside religious orthodoxy to keep his findings in synch with Biblical history.

Steno became first a gifted anatomist, his dissections of animals and human cadavers often drawing the elite as spectators. As word spread of his genius, he found himself the research darling of many of Europe’s most lavish courts, but it was his brilliant deductions of earth history involving layers of sediment and rock as indicators of the true age of our planet that truly placed him alongside the likes of Galileo. Steno was one of the first and only scientists to challenge the Biblical concept of the age of the earth, and to state that in fact the earth was billions of years old - and he could prove it. It was his common-sense theory of how fossils “appeared” on mountaintops that placed him at the peak of scientific achievement of his day, even though history would soon forget his name (but not his contributions to science).

For anyone captivated by the history of scientific discovery, The Seashell on the Mountaintop offers a truly enjoyable and educational read about a man few know of, but whose ideas and brilliance literally changed the face of modern geological science. And for those intrigued by the constant battle between religion and science, this book is a stunning example of just how far we have evolved in bringing the two into line. Steno’s life was a glorious attempt to reconcile the two, and both science and religion owe him a great debt.

© 2004 by Marie D. Jones for Curled Up With a Good Book

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