Don't feel bad if you've never heard of Nicolas Steno. Even though the 17th century Danish anatomist and geologist made a number of discoveries that are now seen as self-evident – namely, that the heart is a muscle that pumps blood, that tears are formed in the eye, that fossils are the remains of living organisms from previous geologic eras, and that older rocks tend to lie deeper in the earth than younger ones – his legacy, like the mysterious stones that he examined, have since been obscured by layers of historical sediment.
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.
Steno's geological breakthrough came in 1666, when, serving as a researcher for the Grand Duke of Tuscany in Florence, he was given the opportunity to examine the head of a great white shark. The young anatomist was struck by the similarity of the shark's teeth to curious objects found embedded in rocks throughout Europe. Steno concluded that those objects actually were the teeth of ancient sharks, deposited there when the continent lay beneath the ocean.
Published in 1669, the principles in Steno's 78-page text, "On Solids," are still taught in geology classes today. Science writer Alan Cutler sums up the thesis in his 2003 biography of the scientist, "The Seashell on the Mountaintop,"
The backbone of his system was a simple but tremendously powerful idea. Recognizing that the layers of rock that entombed fossil shells were made by the gradual accumulation of sediment, he realized that each layer embodied a span of time in the past. He saw no way to measure the number of years or centuries involved, and was loathe to speculate, but it was clear that the layers, one on top of the other, formed an unambiguous sequence: The lowest layer had been formed first, the highest last. Depending on their fossils and their sediments, the layers recorded the succession of seas, rivers, lakes, and soils that once covered the land. Geologists call Steno’s insight the "Principle of Superposition." It means that, layer by layer, the history of the world is written in stone.
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. When Ussher published his chronology, he convinced a significant portion of Europe's leading scholars to conclude that the universe had just 342 years to go.
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? Alternatively if God created the earth's surface in its present form and then created plants and animals, how, exactly, did their remains wind up embedded inside solid rock?
It would be a long time before fundamental questions about our planet would be satisfactorily answered. It was only in 1956 that geochemist Clair Patterson, using lead isotopic data from a meteorite, concluded that the earth was about 4.5 billion years old. As Bill Bryson noted in "A Short History of Nearly Everything," Human beings would split the atom and invent television, nylon, and instant coffee before they could figure out the age of their own planet."
Just as the findings of Copernicus and the astronomers that followed him revealed that the earth is not the hub of the universe, Steno's revolution dislodged humanity from the center of our planet's history. As Bryson notes, if you imagine the past 4.5 billion years compressed into a single 24-hour period, the dinosaurs don't arrive on the scene until about 11 p.m. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens would emerge at one minute and 17 seconds before midnight. All of recorded history, from the Bronze Age to the Digital Age, would span a few seconds at the most.
Some might find this notion of an ancient earth profoundly alienating, but Steno's observations only served to deepen his religious convictions. Raised as a Lutheran, he converted to Catholicism in 1667, later becoming a priest, and ultimately a bishop who renounced the world and embraced poverty, ministering to Catholic minorities in northern Europe. The scientist who had been hosted by Europe's most opulent courts had transformed into an emaciated ascetic with few possessions other than a cloak, tattered habit, and two sackcloth shirts.
Three centuries after his birth, a group of Danish pilgrims appealed to the Vatican to have Steno canonized. On October 23, 1988, exactly 5,992 years after Archbishop Ussher's proposed date of creation, Pope John Paul II held mass of beatification for Steno, who is now known to Catholics as Blessed Nicolas Steno. Beatification is the final step before becoming a saint.
Steno was by no means the only Catholic cleric whose observations created models that counter literal Biblical accounts of creation. Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian friar, developed a model of inheritance that made Darwin's theory of evolution intelligible. In the 20th century, it was a Belgian priest, Georges Lemaître, who first proposed the Big Bang theory.
As for Steno, his legacy extends well beyond his contributions to anatomy and geoscience. His refusal to accept the authority of books, not even established science texts, not even sacred texts, lay at the heart of the then-emerging scientific method and its commitment to empirical observation and experimentation.
For Steno, this commitment was suffused with piety. As he wrote in 1659: "One sins against the majesty of God by being unwilling to look into nature's own works."
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In 1669, Nicolas Steno rewrote the way people thought about the earth. And today, more than 300 years later, Google excavated his name from the history books for a special Google doodle tribute to the late (and perhaps first) geologist.
Steno was a true Renaissance man. He lived back when scientists didn't stick to a single discipline. He dabbled in medicine, shark dentistry, ancient beasts, and ultimately kick-started the study of geology. Steno simply followed his curiosity, no matter where it led.
Our story starts in Florence, Italy, where Steno, then a budding physician, settled down after years of studying throughout western Europe. He had already challenged several long-held scientific assumptions, researched the changing shapes of muscles, and discovered an unknown body part in the heads of mammals. (He named it after himself, the "ductus stenonianus.")
He moved to Florence in 1665 to join the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and collect for him a "cabinet of curiosity" – basically a room filled with natural wonders. Such collections fell somewhere between a carnival freak show and the basement of a university science department. Men such as Steno gathered, labeled, and displayed animals, vegetables, and minerals of all kinds.
So, when fishermen caught a massive great white shark in 1666, guess who got to dissect its head?
"While examining the teeth of the shark, Steno was struck by their resemblance to certain stony objects, called glossopetrae – literally 'tongue stones' – that were found in certain rocks," writes the University of California Museum of Paleontology in its biography of Steno. (See image above.) "Ancient authorities, such as the Roman author Pliny the Elder, had suggested that these stones fell from the sky or from the moon. Others were of the opinion, also going back to ancient times, that fossils naturally grew in the rocks."
These theories didn't make much sense to Steno. What if fossils came from ancient animals, he wondered. What if glossopetrae looked like shark teeth because they were shark teeth, deposited there when the rocks were covered with oceans?
This sounds pretty obvious to people today. But at the time, some scientists pooh-poohed the idea. If fossils were once bones, then how could they possibly have wound up lodged in rock? How could a solid, like stone, wrap around a solid, like teeth? Those are good questions, ones that bothered Steno as well. He decided that this required further research.
Three years after they caught the shark, Steno concluded that all rocks must have once been fluid and then solidified around and on top of fossils, veins of metal – or even older layers of rock. Since new rock keeps burying and sealing off old rock, then there must be horizontal layers, or strata, throughout the earth.
This idea helped explain a fundamental part of geology: the deeper you dig, the older the stone. "This was the first use of geology to try to distinguish different time periods in the Earth's history – an approach that would develop spectacularly in the work of later scientists," writes the UC museum. This allows modern geologists to make conclusions about the past, based on the depth of the rocks they study. The breakthrough is essential to the study of ancient human societies, dinosaurs, and historical climate change.
It also explains Wednesday's Google doodle. The colorful layers in each letter signify Steno's strata.
But there's another lesson in Steno's work: Never feel constrained by your current job or previous accomplishments. Who would have thought that the son of a Danish goldsmith could make major contributions to multiple, diverse fields? Curiosity has an interesting way of leading people to great, unexpected things.
For more on how science and technology intersect daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.
Google today unveiled Search Plus Your World – an initiative, one reporter noted, that marks "one of the biggest changes [Google] has ever made to its search results." Broadly speaking, Search Plus Your World makes searches more "social," which is to say that search results, from here on out, will take into account not just data and factoids, but also relationships between users.
"Search is pretty amazing at finding that one needle in a haystack of billions of webpages, images, videos, news and much more," Google's Amit Singhal wrote in a blog post today. "But clearly, that isn’t enough. You should also be able to find your own stuff on the web, the people you know and things they’ve shared with you, as well as the people you don’t know but might want to... all from one search box."
Search Plus Your World piggybacks on Google+, Google's relatively young – and relatively popular – social network. (It's worth noting here that users can turn off personal results with a single flip of the toggle switch.)
"Say you’re looking for a vacation destination," Singhal writes. "You can of course search the web, but what if you want to learn from the experiences your friends have had on their vacations? Just as in real life, your friends’ experiences are often so much more meaningful to you than impersonal content on the web." To that end, Google will now recommend posts from friends' Google+ pages or photos from Google+ and Picasa.
As Claire Cain Miller of the Times writes, the timing of the announcement is propitious for Google – and its competitors.
"Google has risked being shunted aside for failing to get on board with the social Web," Cain Miller writes. "Its new offering comes eight years after Facebook started and in the weeks before it is expected to file for an initial public offering, the most eagerly anticipated tech offering since Google went public and what is likely to be the crowning moment for the new social Web."
Motorola yesterday introduced the Droid 4, the latest handset in Verizon's popular Droid line. According to CES previews, the new smart phone sports "the greatest Android keyboard slider yet." The Droid 4 keeps the chiseled lines and QWERTY keyboard introduced on the Droid 3, and adds a 1.2GHz dual-core processor. The Droid 4, however, sticks to the older Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS.
Other niceties? An 8-megapixel camera, a backlight feature for the keyboard, and 1GB of RAM. Over at PC World, Armando Rodriguez got an early look at the Droid 4, and he likes what he sees (sort of).
"The thing that struck me most about the Droid 4 was how similar it looked to the Droid Razr," Rodriguez wrote. "But, while the Droid 4 may look similar to the Razr, it isn't nearly as sleek. The Droid 4 felt chunkier than the Droid 3, though its curved edges made it easy to hold. All the buttons on the phone were flush with the rest of the device, which makes it look good – but it also made the buttons a bit difficult to push."
On a related note, Motorola has also taken the wraps off the Droid Razr Maxx, which is expected to launch – like the Droid 4 – sometime in the first quarter of 2012. So what does the Razr Maxx have over the Droid Razr, save the addition of another imaginary word? (Seriously, Motorola, we'd be just fine with the Razr Max, or even the Razor Max. No need to whomp us over the head with the extra consonants.)
Battery life, mostly. Brian Bennett of CNET reports that the Maxx will get 21 hours of talk time, double the longevity of the first Razr. "Despite packing a beefier battery, the phone still keeps its trim 0.35-inch profile," Bennett adds. "All the other great features of the Droid Razr will be here, too, including an 8-megapixel camera and Webtop functionality."
The Droid Razr, released last fall, won largely positive marks from critics, who praised the sharp looks and hefty-processing power of the handset. More here. In the meantime, for more tech news, follow us on Twitter @venturenaut. And don’t forget to sign up for the weekly BizTech newsletter.
The tablet market these days isn't so much a horse race as an absolute rout – there's the high-end iPad, the low-end Kindle Fire, and then there's everyone else. But Apple can't hold the coveted top spot forever, and in recent months, an increasing number of competitors have announced or unveiled Android-powered tablets, including Google itself.
The latest such device is the IdeaTab S2, the 10-inch tablet introduced by Lenovo at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2012) this week. Computerworld is reporting that the S2, set for release this year, will ship with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and in a few different memory configurations: 16 GB, 32 GB, and 64 GB, just like the iPad. Look for 1 GB of RAM, a Snapdragon MSM 8960 processor, rear- and forward-facing cameras, and a svelte, 1.3-pound body – also much like the iPad.
Best of all, the IdeaTab S2 is a "transformer." With a little work (and a couple hundred bucks), it becomes a full-fledged laptop.
"As is common with most 10-inch tablets, the [S2] can operate for approximately 9 hours on a charge," Lance Ulanoff writes over at Mashable. "However, you can double the battery life if you add the $200 keyboard dock, which includes a second battery, full-sized keyboard and touchpad and adds two USB ports and a storage card reader. In other words, it turns the IdeaTab [S2] into a laptop."
Also at CES, Lenovo took the wraps off an IdeaTab-branded tablet called the K2, which will ship with Nvidia's quad-core Tegra 3 processor and Google's Android 4.0 OS, IDG News is reporting. Details on the K2 are pretty murky: Lenovo appears to be positioning the device as a "gaming and multimedia" tablet with HD graphics, as opposed to the more utilitarian S2.
The K2, certainly won't get a budget price, Tech Radar reports, but it will get a fingerprint reader for extra security, and a super-high resolution screen, for watching plenty of videos and playing plenty of games. The device is slated to launch in China this year, but unlike the S2, it has not yet been confirmed for a US release, which is too bad. The thing's apparently a real powerhouse.
Ford this week took the wraps off its new flagship sedan, the 2013 Ford Fusion – a car, according to reports, that Ford hopes to position as the "the new face" of the company. The original Ford Fusion, of course, debuted in the States back in 2005, and subsequently underwent several makeovers, including the one that yielded the streamlined (and critically acclaimed) 2012 Fusion.
"Up close, the Fusion is a classy, if conservative bit of European-style metal shaping, which stands in sharp contrast to Toyota's latest attempt at tugging sedan buyers' emo centers by going more avant garde with its body edges," Spinelli writes. That "aforementioned Aston-Martin-like design trope"? Definitely the gaping front grille, which does bear a subtle similarity to the grille on the Virage and the One-77.
The Associated Press is reporting that Ford will sell a few different versions of the 2013 Fusion, including a hybrid and plug-in hybrid called the Fusion Energi. No word yet on price, although Ford America's President Mark Fields told the AP that the car will have "close" to the same base price as the current Fusion, which starts at around 20 grand.
Over at The New York Times, Christopher Jensen notes that there's plenty at stake here. "This is a mainstream car, designed to sell in the hundreds of thousands every year against formidable competitors," Jensen writes. "Consequently, Ford will get a huge benefit if the Fusion is a blockbuster. But it would be a serious blow to the automaker if the car failed to gain traction with buyers."
The iPhone 4S is burning through twice as much data as the iPhone 4, and almost three times as much data as the iPhone 3G, according to a new study from tech management firm Arieso. And in an highly-cited interview with Bloomberg, Michael Flanagan, the author of the study, is blaming much of the spike on Siri, the voice-controlled personal assistant introduced on the iPhone 4S.
"Voice is the ultimate human interface," Flanagan told Bloomberg.
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According to Arieso, iPhone 4S users are the "hungriest" data consumers in the world – but users of other smartphones, including handsets driven by the Android OS, aren't far behind. All that data usage could be bad news for carriers and consumers, Arieso warns.
"The introduction of increasingly sophisticated devices, coupled with growing consumer demand, is creating unrelenting pressure on mobile networks. The capacity crunch is still a very real threat for mobile operators, and it looks set to only get harder in 2012," writes study author Michael Flanagan. "The mobile industry needs new investment and new approaches to boost network performance and manage the customer experience."
So is Siri really to blame for the spike in data usage? Well, over at The Next Web, Matthew Panzarino isn't so sure. In a long post, he advises readers to take the Arieso report with a grain of salt – especially as pertains to Siri's role in all that network traffic.
"Remember that the iPhone 4 numbers that the iPhone 4S is being compared to are from 2010. That’s before Apple introduced its iCloud backup services at all, which can be hundreds of megabytes in size," Panzarino writes. "iTunes Match, Photo Stream, iMessage and all of the other data hungry iCloud services are likely a huge part of the increase from over a year ago... The entire smartphone using population uses more data now than in 2010, hands down."
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A computer worm called Ramnit has been used to compromise approximately 45,000 Facebook accounts, most of them in Europe and the UK, a security firm reported this week. According to Seculert, the Ramnit worm, which has been described as "a multi-component malware family which infects Windows executable as well as HTML files," is now targeting social media sites such as Facebook.
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More from the Seculert team:
We suspect that the attackers behind Ramnit are using the stolen credentials to log-in to victims' Facebook accounts and to transmit malicious links to their friends, thereby magnifying the malware's spread even further. In addition, cybercriminals are taking advantage of the fact that users tend to use the same password in various web-based services (Facebook, Gmail, Corporate SSL VPN, Outlook Web Access, etc.) to gain remote access to corporate networks.
In other words, if you use the same password for your email and your Facebook, an attack by the Ramnit worm could leave both accounts vulnerable. (It's worth noting here that you should always vary the passwords you use for different sites.) So how serious is the breach? Well, Facebook, for its part, is assuring users that it has the situation under control.
"Our security experts have reviewed the data, and while the majority of the information was out of date, we have initiated remedial steps for all affected users to ensure the security of their accounts," a Facebook rep told ZD Net. "Thus far, we have not seen the virus propagating on Facebook itself, but have begun working with our external partners to add protections to our antivirus systems to help users secure their devices," the rep added.
Moreover, ZD Net is reporting that most of the hacked accounts were out of date – comforting news for Facebook users.
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Back in December, Google exec Eric Schmidt announced that Google was close to releasing its own tablet computer – possibly a tablet branded with the Nexus moniker. "In the next six months we plan to market a tablet of the highest quality," told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sea, according to the UK Telegraph. That announcement meshed well with a long-simmering rumor: That Google and LG had partnered to build a tablet.
At the time, the assumption was that Google would be going after the corner of the market currently dominated by the Apple iPad (in other words, high-end). But now DigiTimes, a Taiwanese tech site, is alleging that Google could instead be gunning for the Kindle Fire, the budget tablet released last fall by Amazon.
Citing anonymous sources from "Google's upstream supply chain," DigiTimes speculated that a Google tablet – armed with Android 4.0 software – will hit in either March or April. The price? Less than 200 bucks, so as better to compete with Amazon. (The Kindle Fire retails for $199, meaning, as we noted recently, that Amazon actually loses money on every Kindle Fire it builds.)
So is the scuttlebutt for real? Well, typical caveats apply: Google is remaining mum, and although DigiTimes is well sourced, the site has been wrong before. That said, many tech bloggers seem willing to believe the DigiTimes report, if only because Google – long a holdout in the tablet game – seems well-poised to introduce a Kindle Fire (or iPad) competitor.
Over at PC World, Daniel Ionescu breaks down the possible routes for a Google tablet.
"The tablet market represents a slightly different challenge for Google than the smartphone market, where Android has already won (in sales)," Ionescu writes. "Google can either pursue Apple’s model to produce high-end tablets, where the biggest profits are, or it could pursue the media tablet market, where Amazon is taking a loss on the hardware and hopes to profit from sales from its content ecosystem, including movies, music, books and apps."
These days, most of the tech press spotlight belongs to high-performing, high-priced smartphones such as the Apple iPhone 4S or the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which will set you back a cool 300 bucks, assuming you opt into a 2-year contract (the phone costs even more if you don't). Budget-minded consumers might be forgiven for thinking they've been left out in the cold.
Well, say hello to the Lumia 710, the new smartphone from the team at Nokia. The Lumia 710, which launches January 11 in the US, comes equipped with a 1.4Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor (solid), Windows Phone 7.5 Mango software (lovely), a 3.7-inch screen (nice), and a very low price (woohoo!). How low? 50 bucks, with a contract. In other words, the Nokia Lumia 710 is one of the first real entry-level Windows Phones.
So how does it stack up? Well, over at Laptop magazine, Sherri L. Smith likes what she sees.
"The $49.99 Nokia Lumia 710 is one of the best value-priced smartphones out there. It offers an engaging user interface, snappy performance, and a clear and bright display," Smith writes. "Right now the HTC Radar 4G is free on T-Mobile, which offers better sound and a slightly better camera. However, we prefer the Lumia 710 because Nokia includes free GPS navigation, which will save you more money over the long haul," she adds.
But Athima Chansanchai of MSNBC isn't so sure.
It was "cumbersome" to share pictures and other data on the Lumia 710, "which is one of the biggest selling points of jumping on the smartphone bandwagon," Chansanchai writes. "It was like a maze, the first time I started dabbling with this Windows Phone, and I was the little mouse that only found the cheese after many, many wrong turns and dead ends.