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Nicolas Steno: The saint who undermined creationism

Celebrated with a Google doodle on his 374th birthday, Nicolas Steno set in motion a revolution that would ultimately unseat the Bible as an accepted scientific authority on the age of the earth. Now he is on the path to Catholic sainthood. 

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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?

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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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