On the Blessed (?St.)


On the Blessed (?St.) Niels Stensen

If paleontology is to have a patron, it will have to be this great holy man. He was a great scientist, having made contributions in anatomy, Paleontology, sedimentology, crystallography, and other disciplines. In addition, He was Bishop in an extremely hostile see. So much so that I have often seen him regarded as a "Missionary" Bishop in Holland.On October 23, 1988, Pope John Paul II conferred the title "blessed" on him.

Steno's primary contribution to paleontology was an explanation of how things like shark's teeth came to be embedded in rocks. In this way he established a foundational understanding of the principles of sedimentology and paleontology. After all, until one could understand how once-living things became part of a rock, you could make no sense of the meaning of things embedded in the rock.

I suppose I point to Steno because I hear how backward and anti-science the Church is. People toss up the Galileo issue all the time; and yet, it seems without a deep understanding of what actually led to the condemnation. While the condemnation may have been ill-considered and wrong-headed, it was more a personal statement about the exceedingly unpleasant Galileo than it was a statement about "how the heavens go," to quote the second half of Bellarmine's famous aphorism.

Stensen (Steno) was also the discoverer of one of the foundational laws of crystallography. Called Steno's Law, it states simply that the angle between the sides of a given crystal (if left to grow without interference) is always the same. Thus, the similarity one sees among the shapes of quartz crystals that form in voids in rock but do not infill it.

From time to time I will probably mention other Saints who contributed, directly or indirectly, to the fields of science in which I was involved. Men of God are not necessarily opposed to Science. One needs to remember that it was the Church which provided a foundation for the modern sciences, not vice versa. With the proposition that God existed came the corollary that His universe was ordered and explainable. This, in fact, is critical for the pursuit of any knowledge. If everything occurs at random, there is no point in seeking to explain how it occurs. In holding to the inner conviction of an ordered universe, the Church held firm the foundation set by Greek and Roman scientists (in the western world) but threatened by the ransacking of the Old Empire.

I do not know if Blessed Niels Stensen has yet been canonized, but it is my prayer than it happen soon--an acknowledgment that faith and science need not be in conflict. (Nor for that matter, in case it wasn't obvious by this blog, do Science and the Arts--although to judge from some University Campuses one would not suppose this to be a truth.).

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 21, 2002 8:02 AM.

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