Friday, January 11, 2013

History, geology, and calendars, oh, my...

I love it when different events in different years but on the same day have a resonance of some kind with each other.

Today is one of those days. Well, depending on which calendar you use, but still...Let me tell you a story.

Nicolas Steno was born on this day in 1638. Kind of.

The Gregorian Calendar, the calendar we use today, was decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, and was pretty much immediately adopted by the European Catholic countries. However, Denmark, where Steno was born, was a Lutheran country and so kept on using the Julian Calendar and resisted adopting Gregory's calendar until March 1, 1700. So, according to the calendar used when and where he was born, Steno was born on January 1. But, not only because we use the Gregorian Calendar today but because Steno converted from Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism (in 1667), it is appropriate to mark his birthday on January 11.

Before his conversion and ordniation to the priesthood, Steno had studied both anatomy and geology. Besides having taught anatomy, he is considered to be one of the founders of modern geology. In 1669, published a work in which he recognized the basic principles of stratigraphy, the basis of all modern geological studies. These were 1) the law of superposition, which says that in undisturbed geolgoical layers, the lower strata are older than higher strata; 2) the principle of original horizontality, the idea that tilted strata were horizontal at their deposition; and 3) the principle of lateral continuity, which says that material in a stratum was continuous unless a solid body stood in the way. He also recognized the principle of cross-cutting relationships, the idea that a discontinuity or body that intrudes into a stratum is younger than the stratum, as well as articulating the theory that fossils represent the remains of life in different geolgical eras.

Today in the Roman Catholic church, Steno is known as the Blesssed Nicolas Steno, having been beatified, the last step before sainthood, by Pope John Paul II in 1988. I don't know if that status makes Steno unique among scientists, but I'm pretty sure there are not that many scientists on their way to sainthood.

But that isn't what makes the fact that today is Steno's birthday interesting to me. What makes it interesting to me is the fact that January 11, in 1908, is the day that Grand Canyon National Monument was created. It had been named Grand Canyon Game Preserve in 1906, but would not be created as a national park until 1919.

Nicolas Steno would have loved the Grand Canyon, considering that it contains one of the most complete geologic columns in the world. This is true even though down near the bottom of the canyon there is what is called the Great Unconformity. At that point, there is a gap of around one billion years between rocks that are 1.5 billion years old and rocks that were depostied about 500 million years ago. The Unconformity represents a period of erosion between depositions.

Can you imagine how much fun Steno would have had studying all those strata in the Canyon? It seems to me that there is some sort of poetic justice in the Canyon being created a national monument on the 270th anniversary of Steno's birth.

Which only goes to prove, I suppose, that I am both a science geek and a history geek, and that if I try really, really hard, I can manage to combine them.

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