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The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius who Discovered a New History of the Earth

3.82  ·  Rating Details ·  667 Ratings  ·  74 Reviews
The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science Sainthood and the Humble Genius Who Discovered a New History of the Earth
Hardcover, 228 pages
Published April 28th 2003 by Dutton Adult (first published January 1st 2003)
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Charlene Lewis- Estornell
Jul 12, 2016 Charlene Lewis- Estornell rated it it was amazing
Shelves: geology
This book was beautiful and reminded me a bit of Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. Swerve followed Poggio Bracciolini on his quest to recover ancient books. Eventually, he found the only surviving writing of Lucretius, On the Nature of Things and preserved it so that all future generations could know the history of the study of nature (and atoms), learn from it, and enjoy it. Lucretius, who is one of my favorite people to have ever lived, is also covered in this book. However, Seashell on the Mounta ...more
Jul 29, 2016 Eppursimuov3 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I picked up this book by Alan Cutler while browsing through the popular science section in a local bookstore, drawn to it mainly because of its nice cover! It turned out to be quite a gem, unlike anything I have ever read. It’s a short biography on the life of Nicolaus Steno, a 17th century anatomist who is also widely considered to be the pioneer of the geological sciences. The reader is transported into the 17th century; a world in which science and religion went hand in hand, both playing a h ...more
May 02, 2016 Jane rated it really liked it
I'm not really one for books on science because usually they are too abstruse and complicated for me. This was a happy exception. Written in an easily accessible style, this was the biography, discussion of the scientific theories and importance of the self-effacing 17th century Dane, Nicolaus Steno, who can be called the 'father' of geology.

In a student journal he wrote of his thought that: "Snails, shells, oysters, fish, etc. [have been] found petrified on places far remote from the sea. Eith
Feb 07, 2015 Dave rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction-read
Fascinating story of one of the pioneers of modern geology.
Clare O'Beara
May 10, 2016 Clare O'Beara rated it really liked it
The story of the first man to study the geology of the ages, and write a scientific treatise on how seashells and fossil sharks' teeth got embedded in rocks, is an interesting read.

Nicholaus Steno (he spelt it several ways depending on which language, as he learnt about ten) was a Danish man in the seventeenth century. Denmark actually produced many science students from a small, related cadre, including Tycho Brahe who mapped the stars more precisely than had been done before, at a time when a
Nov 28, 2010 Kevin rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2010-reading
The Seashell on the Mountaintop is on the one hand, a biography of the scientist known in English as Nicolaus Steno, a fascinating man in his own right. But it's also a history of the foundation of the science of geology, and it's a window into the early days of scientific exploration.

Steno, a Dane, started as a brilliant anatomist, wandering Europe dissecting and teaching. He was the fist to propose the idea that muscular action comes from the contraction of muscle fibers not the ballooning of
Nov 28, 2010 Nick rated it really liked it
Alan Cutler does a fine job of providing us with an introduction to Father Niels Stensen's achivements, and he left my interest piqued. Cutler writes from the perspective of a paleontologist, and so the aspects of Stensen's life of most interest to me personally were not treated in much detail--though I might almost be grateful for this, given the way religious themes are often handled by those not familiar with them! Cutler is quite respectful, however, and manages to offer some rough sketchwor ...more
Feb 03, 2015 Karry rated it really liked it
The story of Nicolai Stenonis (Steno) told in this book is one that, though a short read, was filled with fabulous information about the life story of someone I had never heard of before. Although I have been to the basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, I didn't even know that he was buried there nor would I have guessed that I would have wanted to visit his shrine as other pilgrims do. He was a Dane, converted to Catholicism, worked for the Medici's in Florence and was WAY ahead of his time in u ...more
Feb 22, 2009 Ray rated it really liked it
More than one man may lay claim to the title as the father of modern geology, and Nicholas Stano is one of the earliest. His work with fossils from the late 17th Century did not make a significant contribution to the understanding of the world around us during his time, but his work as later re-discovered was revolutionary. Anyone who read Simon Winchester's book "The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology" should like this book as much if not more. An interest ...more
Stan Paulsen
Sep 07, 2008 Stan Paulsen rated it really liked it
Wow! This is the coolest overview of early geologic discovery and methodology. The realization that rocks are very ancient and the fossils embedded in those rocks are just as ancient as the rocks was unheard of until Nicolas Steno. Nicolas Steno was the first man in recorded history to link geologic layers with the time line of geologic history. Before he added his ideas to the pantheon of science, there were some pretty wacky ideas about how sea life fossils were embedded in the rock high on mo ...more
Feb 06, 2009 Cheryl rated it it was ok
I was a little disappointed, this is a biography of a man who started asking the first questions about how seashells got on the top of the Alps, which to me is pretty miraculous and I know how they got there. Imagine being in the time where no one knew! But the tone wasn't very engaging or interesting. I still can't believe that people in that day and age (1600's) thought mountains were hideous and offended God... but they did. I did like that Steno started as an anatomist so there are parallels ...more
Jun 14, 2012 Margie rated it really liked it
At the end of the book, Cutler wrote, "A full-blown biography of Steno in English has yet to be written. This book is no more than a start. Because I was mainly interested in his contribution to science as a geologist, I had to leave out many details of his careers as an anatomist and a priest."

It's a short book, but surprisingly fleshed out, given that Steno lived in the late 1600s. Well worth a read for geonerds.
May 30, 2015 KennyO rated it really liked it
Most books looking back on the genesis of geology as a field of study cite men of the past and mention one or another way each pushed forward the study of the earth. In Alan Cutler's short volume centered on the life and work of Nikolas Steno he neatly depicts the interplay of 17th century church and science with human wit and frailty. If you're looking for the science keep looking but if the roots of the modern study of the earth are your interest this is a wonderful entry.
Just found this too boring and dry to keep going with it. Life is too short to be burdened by boring books... :)
Dec 27, 2016 Judy rated it really liked it
In the mid-1600s, a Danish anatomist, Nicholas Stensen (Steno) traveled to Italy and published a little book called El Solido, which 150 years later was finally recognized as the foundation for the developing fields of geology and paleontology. He became a Roman Catholic priest and did not publish his dissertation which has been lost to science. However, his findings and ideas upturned the Biblical timescales for earth's creation and sent the earth sciences on a new path.
Jan 01, 2017 Debbie rated it it was amazing
I didn't expect to find this book quite as interesting as I did, but it's more than just about figuring out a puzzle - why fossilized seashells are found far from and far above any sea - but about the history of science.

Back in the day, the ealy 17th Century, scientists didn't observe or do experiments; they read Aristotle. When they did attempt to explain what they observed, they were limited in ways that seem absurd today - spontaneous generation, anyone? - or strove to explain it as part of
Jan 03, 2017 Robert rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Story of geological conflict(s) between science and faith(s) and of Nicolas Steno a danish scientist who started Lutheran, converted to Roman Catholic and is almost a saint. Defined some of the foundational principles of geology.
Feb 14, 2014 Alger rated it liked it
Another in the faddish series of science history books entitled "Noun: The something that changed the world", meaning the title is far more ambitious than the book itself.

Even given that unambitious framework, this book disappoints. In organization this is an extended biographical essay that fills out the few known facts of Steno's life with considerable detail about period philosophy and natural science. In that light, the book would have been better sold and organized as a description of that
Jul 11, 2009 Nicole rated it really liked it
This book covers the 17th century science of fossils. This book gives a great simple introduction to Steno's life and a review of how he, a Dane, came to study the geology of Tuscany in an attempt to explain how seashells come to be found as fossils on mountaintops. It follows how he came to see fossils had an explainable organic origin. His study of Tuscan strata produced the three principles of forming sedimentary rock and how to analyze it after it has been disrupted by later geologic events. ...more
Nov 17, 2008 David rated it liked it
Recommended to David by: I think it was mentioned on NPR Science Friday
The story of how Nicolas Steno, a 17th century Danish scientist, discovered fundamental principles of geology through his interest in fossilized shark teeth and seashells. To my thinking, the most important of his contributions is the idea that there is a chronology written in the strata of rocks and that it is possible to read that record of past events. This book, is less about how he came to make these discoveries, and more about the environment in which he made them and the reactions of his ...more
Ryan Mishap
Feb 05, 2009 Ryan Mishap rated it liked it
Nicolas Steno, a Danish practitioner of medical autopsies, eventual convert to Catholocism, and eventual Saint, has his life recounted here in the context of Geology. The author considers Steno the founder of modern geology for his study of fossils, delineation of stratification, and more. He set out to answer the age old question of how fossils from the sea could be found in the rocks in the mountains. Previous theories—the biblical flood, spontaneous generation—hadn’t convinced Steno.
I pick
Katelis Viglas
I liked it. It is about the father of geology who became a saint of the Catholic Church. Nicolaus Steno was devoted to his scientific research. I wonder if ever his lost manuscript on the science of the earch, other than his De Solido, will be found. The book is well-written, as the author describes analyticaly, using the polemical model of narrative, all the controversies, mainly as regards the ideological, philosophical, scientific and religious currents of the seventeenth century.
But the wri
Jul 13, 2016 Kerry rated it really liked it
This is a really good book for the general reader. It does talk about science, but not to extremes, and the history is very interesting and well expressed. It is a good thing for people to understand where scientists got their ideas and all the road blocks that have been placed in their way (and still are). Understanding that the Bible and the science are not related is the first step. Geology can be fascinating, and Steno's life was certainly interesting, with his travels, the people he met and ...more
MusingMom Kris
What a fascinating story about the post-Galileo era, at the beginnings of modern science. Nicolas Steno is a brilliant and intriguing character that comes to the center of science, culture, and religion of the day--Florence, Italy. How he and others interpret the ubiquitous presence of seashells on mountains sheds an interesting light on science inquiry at the frontier of our knowledge. The story intertwines science, Catholicism, and early Protestantism since Lutheran Steno converts to Catholici ...more
Apr 13, 2015 Clay rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
All geologists know of Nicolas Steno, who's principles we use on a daily basis and are one of the building blocks of modern geology, which are the law of superposition, principle of original horizontality, principle of lateral continuity, and principle of cross-cutting relationships.

Most non-geologists know nothing about Steno.

As a geologist I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about his life, evolution of ideas, his scientific peers and the general vector and momentum of scientific thought during
Jan Kjellin
Berättelsen om Nicolaus Stenos liv är bitvis fascinerande och rejält underhållande. Nästan så att jag skulle vilja ha levat i slutet av 1600-talet, trots all misär; Vetenskapen sysslade med teorier om självalstring och andra tokigheter. Läkare ordinerade kräkning som någon slags universalbot. Och folk verkar allmänt ha varit lite galna.

Men de mustiga livsbeskrivningarna till trots torkar boken ut efterhand och när man lägger den ifrån sig känns den mer som ett av de fossil Steno forskade kring,
May 22, 2008 Lucas rated it liked it
Most interesting are the old theories of spontaneous generation, where smaller animals and insects were believed to spring alive from dead matter under the right conditions. It seems equally plausible to intelligent design, and at least can be tested in the lab (though an experiment that would force the aliens or supernatural designers of ID to exercise their creative faculties deserves more consideration).
David Spanagel
Jul 08, 2015 David Spanagel rated it liked it
I have used this book in two different courses (an introductory history of science course, and an intermediate survey course on the history of the physical sciences). Students find it very readable, which is a major plus. I cannot say that the narrative argument is all that profound; we follow Steno through his life, and we are left with this unanswered question: how was his scientific curiosity for a time an essential expression of his faith, but ultimately a dispensible one?
Sandra D
Nov 11, 2008 Sandra D rated it liked it
Shelves: biography, science
Biography of the father of stratigraphy, with a historical overview of human understanding as far as the natural and physical sciences and where it stood by the mid-1600s. It's interesting to see all the different lines of thought about how mountains and seashells in mountains and various other natural wonders came to be -- most of which sound pretty outlandish today, but seemed to make perfect sense at the time.
Juliet Wilson
Sep 06, 2009 Juliet Wilson rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
This is the biography of the 17th century Danish scientist Nicolaus Steno, a celebrated anatomist, who was fascinated by rocks and the shells he found in the mountains of Italy. The book documents his explorations and theories about the earth and highlights the problems many scientists found with the church authorities. Steno is now recognised as the real founder of geology, though he abandoned science to become a Catholic Bishop and was made a saint after his death.
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