Did you use Google today? Perhaps you noticed the Doodle in honor of 17th century scientist Nicolas Steno, a pioneer in both anatomy and geology. Google often honors scientists, authors and inventors with its occasional homepage art, but what’s interesting about this one is the religious side to Steno’s life. The Los Angeles Times notes the scientist’s shift to more religious priorities in a rather abrupt way.
As one of our readers noted, “It’s only January and I think we may already have a winner for the year’s most condescending religion story.” Here’s how it launches:
Nicolas Steno, recipient of a Google Doodle on Wednesday, was a 17th century brainiac with the type of weird genius that led to his discovery of the human salivary duct and a made him a pioneer in geology. But in the end, he threw it all over for God.
“Wow! He quit being smart to be religious! Becoming Catholic meant he had to ‘toss aside’ science. It’s a cringefest from beginning to end,” our friend writes.
What’s unclear, as another reader wrote, is whether Steno saw science and faith at odds with one another and whether he stopped making scientific observations.
After making such scientific observations — at the time underappreciated — Steno got religion.
He became Roman Catholic in 1667 and tossed aside science. In 1675, he became a priest and in 1677 a bishop. He was apostolic vicar of northern Germany and Scandinavia and spent the remainder of his life — which wasn’t that long — doing missionary work. He died at age 48.
Man, what a letdown, right? But since Google points us to Wikipedia, we’ll want to note this little bit from the Steno entry: “In 1683, Steno resigned as auxiliary bishop after an argument about the election of the new bishop, Maximilian Henry of Bavaria and moved in 1684 to Hamburg. There Steno became involved again in the study of the brain and the nerve system with an old friend Dirck Kerckring.” So it appears that he did not, in fact, stop studying science after his conversion. He was also beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988, which somehow isn’t worth a mention in the post.
The Christian Science Monitor takes a look at the religion and science combination but also tries to drum up some controversy. Steno’s life “[fails] to fit into a narrative that science and religion are enemies,” and his work was “embraced by the Vatican,” but his work ultimately “undermined creationism.”
Perhaps some of Steno’s obscurity arises from his failure to fit into a narrative that science and religion are adversaries. Unlike Galileo, whom the Catholic church famously threatened to torture if he did not recant, Steno was embraced by the Vatican. Yet his discoveries set in motion a revolution that would ultimately unseat the Bible as the authority on the age of the earth.
I’d love to hear from some scientifically minded people on this one, because it looks like the reporter makes some assumptions.
A decade earlier, James Ussher, an Anglican archbishop in Ireland, published his Biblical chronology of the world. By adding up the reigns of the kings and lifespans of the patriarchs and comparing them with the dates of known historical events, Ussher concluded that the world came into existence on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC.
Ussher’s proposed date of creation was close to that calculated by his contemporaries, including such luminaries as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton. Some pointed to 2 Peter 3:8, which states that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” This ratio was tied to the six days of creation in the book of Genesis, leading them to conclude that the total lifespan of the world was 6,000 years.
…Steno never publicly renounced this Biblical time frame, but his geological investigations clearly challenged it. How could an honest person looking at, say, the Alps, explain the immense movement of rock, the folding, faulting, and erosion of land, the depositing of sedimentary strata, in the span of just 56 centuries?
What’s unclear to me is what the official stance of the Catholic Church on creationism was at the time. Perhaps the Church was in line with James Ussher, but the piece doesn’t make that connection. It also feels like a leap to say that just because Steno made certain discoveries, he personally questioned six-day creationism, since that would depend on how committed he was to a literal creationism. Again, science people, please weigh in.