Google Doodle pick got religion, dumped science?

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.

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  • http://!)! Passing By

    Was Galileo tortured? A quick Google will not only take you to the nice doodle, but more information than you want to know about the Galileo affair. I chose the link from PBS, but there are many. It’s often noted that the Church’s fault (the real fault, not all the slanders) in that case was not in being anti-science, but in being overly attached to one particular scientific system, that of Aristotle. Even at that, Galileo was only inhibited because he insisted on teaching as fact what he had not yet proven. By some accounts, he was opposed less by “the Church” than by some individuals he irritated with his arrogance.

    Now that I have that off my chest, I don’t have much to say about the LA Times article, which seems more flippant than anything. Not to mention contradicted by the timeline in the CSM. Steno published “On Solids” two years after he became Catholic, and supposedly threw over science.

    Now my question: is this journalism?

    How could an honest person looking at, say, the Alps…

    Where does that fit into a reporters job? Is he maybe trying to edge us to a particular conclusion, say that despite all that church stuff, surely Steno was smarter than he looked.

    Finally, the Catholic tradition has always understood scripture to be understandable in four senses, so the literal has not dominated Catholic thinking as it has in some more modern theologies.

    And now, for no reason than I think it fits the general topic, can an honest person really consider the Catholic Church anti-science?

  • Jerry

    Writing as one who has a masters degree in chemistry, I don’t see it as a “science people” question

    Steno never publicly renounced this Biblical time frame, but his geological investigations clearly challenged it.

    We apparently have no idea why he never publicly wrote or spoke on that question so can only speculate. He might have been told not to, he might have not paid attention to that time frame calculation, who knows?

    You ask an interesting religious question about the attitude of the Church to that time frame at that time. That might provide some grounds for speculation.

  • Jerry N

    There was a great popularization of Steno published a few years ago called “The Seashell on the Mountaintop”. I do not think the Church explicitly endorsed Ussher’s timeline (Ussher himself was an Anglican, methought). Augustine spoke against naive readings in his “On the Literal Meaning of Genesis”, I thought. Jerome similarly seemed to read Genesis in a less literal manner. This isn’t to say that geological features weren’t explained by passages in Genesis by individual scholars or clerics.

    I should also note that prior to his being received into the Roman Church Steno was a very serious (I won’t say the d-word) Lutheran.

  • Bill P.

    I wish that journalists would remember that the Church holds no infallible teachings on matters of science — never has. Not even in the Galileo matter. But since St. Paul, the Church has eagerly engaged and chatted with outside worldviews because that’s what incarnational faiths do.

    For an excellent resource on Catholics and science, and Catholic scientists, check out the Catholic Laboratory.

  • Jeff

    Bill P,

    Now don’t going spoiling journalists fun with the *truth* for Pete’s sake!

  • Jeff

    Passing By,

    No, an *honest* person cannot consider the Roman Catholic Church anti-science.

  • Martha

    The Wikipedia article is fascinating on Blessed Nicholas, and in the bibliography links to an essay about him in a 2003 publication issued by the Geological Society of America that specifically examines this question of faith versus science.

    He seems to have been opposed to Fr. Athanasius Kircher, the Jesuit polymath, regarding the formation of fossils (so presumably he was also not of the same opinion as Kircher on other scientific theories, especially if Kircher adhered to Classical learning and Steno instead advocated experimental science), but there’s nothing about what, if any, theory of Creation was the dominant or even official teaching of the Church at the time (I agree that Ussher, as a Church of Ireland bishop who was vehemently anti-Catholic, would probably not have been on the Vatican Top Ten List of Approved Reading).

    Anyway, the essay I mentioned states that “During this time, Steno made his momentous decision to become a priest because he felt that the study of nature, which actually should have nurtured his life of grace, instead was leading him away from the intimate relations with God which he most desired, as he told the canonical auditor at the Papal Nunciature in Cologne, Giovanni Battista Pachicelli”.

    It would be interesting to know how much of his personal piety was influenced by his (former) Lutheranism, but certainly it does seem to have been a personal choice on his part, not any pressure from the hierarchy, to devote himself to his pastoral work in preference to continuing with scientific investigation full-time.

    The Lutherans’ loss was definitely our gain. :-)

  • Daniel

    Re: “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?” This statement looks to me like a jesture in favor of the commonly held asumptions of uniformitarianism and a thumbs down on the part of the author against cataclysmism. Is this not a bias on the part of the author? Are we to believe that cataclysm did not occur during the 56 centuries? Why then, would cataclysm be an acceptable assumption prior to civilization, but not an acceptable assumption after the onset of civilization?

  • sari

    It’s unclear to me why one would consult scientists for this article. More appropriate would be to consult one or more historians whose emphasis is the history of science or the place and time period under discussion.

  • Chris

    Science has a history and a culture, like every other human undertaking. One mistake that journalists (and non-scientists) tend to make in the present, is that our scientifically informed “truth” has always been believed by all “true” scientists everywhere and at every time. (Sometimes scientists abet this view.) The age of the earth, geological change, and biological evolution were not “settled” scientific facts at the time of Steno. “Honest” scientists differed, and their perception of these topics was very different from ours, based on the resources of the times. I think the topic of changes in scientific theory can be very well summed up by a quote by 19th physicist, James Clerk Maxwell:
    “There are two theories of the nature of light, the corpuscle theory and the wave theory. We used to believe in the corpuscle theory. Now we believe in the wave theory because all those who believed in the corpuscle theory have died.”

  • Julia

    I found this in an abstract of a longer paper on Steno and the age of the earth.

    The Deluge described by Holy Scripture plays an important role in Stensen’s theory and his reconstruction of Earth history. Stensen had become a Catholic in 1667. However, his acceptance of what scripture says about the Deluge is sincere. He had no means of checking time scales nor would deviation from Holy Scripture be dangerous for him, since a Jesuit, Martino Martini (1614–1661), in 1658 had published a history of China that did not fit well with the time scale in Holy Scripture.

    I’m assuming that Jesuit Fr. Martini was required to get Church permission to publish his history; and that this is put forth as proof that the Church wasn’t we to any particular biblical formula for the age of the earth.

    nil obstat means there is nothing objectionable in a book being published. This phrase can be found in the opening pages of all kinds of Catholic books.

  • Julia

    No, an *honest* person cannot consider the Roman Catholic Church anti-science.

    Re: insertion of “Roman” into Passing By’s comment.

    Here’s an extremely confusing Wikipedia entry on the use of the term – Roman Catholic Church.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I missed the insertion of “Roman” because I was unaware of not using it in my post. I understand the controversy, it was not the point of my comment.

    Anyway, the sign outside my parish says “Roman Catholic Church” and my diocese calls itself “Roman Catholic”. So unless I am arguing that specific point (which I wouldn’t do here), I’m pretty loose about the whole thing.

  • Jeff

    Julia and Passing By,

    Not everyone considers The Church of Rome to be the *only* Catholic church — ergo the nomenclature “Roman Catholic Church.”

  • Matt

    I agree with sari #9 that the issue here is not modern science but the history of science. The CSM article, in particular, conveys a poor grasp of the history of science. I don’t believe Steno talked much about the age of the earth, and indeed even today’s Young-Earth Genesis-Flood creationists agree with Steno’s laws of stratigraphy (the mechanics of how layers of rock are laid down). Steno was that fundamental. For another example, Clair Patterson’s work in 1956 only put a specific number on what scientists had qualitatively known for a long time, yet the CSM article fails to mention Hutton or other pioneers of geology who actually built the case for an ancient earth.

    The CSM article is also bad on the history of theology, as has been noted. Ussher was not Catholic, nor were his views universally held. And the non-calendar-day approach to Genesis dates from the early church fathers.

    If one tries, the LAT article can be read more charitably than you did. I don’t see any problems at all except for the first paragraph and the last two paragraphs (the only parts you quote). It is true that Steno’s scientific observations were at least mostly interrupted after he converted to Catholicism (though the article’s phrase “got religion” erroneously implies that he was not very religious as a Lutheran), and the LAT doesn’t actually say that this was because of any incompatibility between the two (though the distasteful innuendo is easy to perceive). In fact the shift was because Steno was (quite literally) a Renaissance Man who pursued a number of interests, including both science and theology, but did not stick at any one of them for the long term.

  • fr. richard

    Those of us who are “Greek Catholic” (genuine Eastern members of the Catholic Church who are in communion with the Pope of Rome) are so very weary hearing our fellow Catholics insist on using the term “Roman” to describe the whole of the Catholic Church, which continues to reinforce the idea that those who are not “Roman” cannot be Catholic. They are constantly encouraged in this by news reports who also use this adjective all the time. The Catholic Church does not describe itself as either “Roman” or “Greek” but simply Catholic, as even the title of the Catechism makes plain.

    I know that likely we will never see the day when our English-speaking brethren will stop using this extra word to describe the Church as a whole. Sigh. But, thank you Sarah Pulliam Bailey for NOT doing so, and for an enjoyable article here.

  • Julia

    fr richard:

    And here is an interesting article in La Stampa about yet another 4 million member non-Roman Catholic Church which is none-the-less in communion with the Pope with HQ in Rome; it has just been given a Cardinal who is every bit as legitimate as any Italian Cardinal. The moniker Roman Catholic was imposed by the English who were not taking any of the non-Roman Catholic Churches in the East into consideration.

    I’m 67 and remember various documents where I had to choose a religion – the choices included Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Roman Catholic. The statistics on how Catholics identify themselves are colored by the options offered. Most Americans mean well but are unaware that this term Roman Catholic arose in 17th century England.