The “Invisible Genius”

Nicolas Steno
The Invisible Genius: Nicolas Steno

Under the sun, once there was a man who estimated the age of the earth. The same man laid down the groundwork for neuroscience. He also proved that rocks are time machines to look into the past. But I’m quite sure that 95% of you have not heard of him.

History has always been dominated by people who have done remarkable things and had a great name for themselves. Isaac Newton worked around many problems proving many people wrong and becoming one of the greatest thinkers ever. Leonardo DaVinci, Albert Einstein, Galileo Galilei, etc have done a lot to get the recognition they got. But there is this humble man who had his fingers in many plates like DaVinci, laid groundwork like Newton, questioned the current methods like Galileo and was a phenomenal thinker like Einstein.

The beginnings

Nicolas Steno is a name rarely heard of outside “Intro to Geology”. Though, anyone who wishes to understand life on Earth should see how Steno widened and associated those very concepts: Earth, life, and understanding. Born with the name of Niels Stensen in 1638 Denmark, he was a son of a goldsmith and a feeble kid whose school friends died because of the plague. Steno survived and ended up cutting corpses as an anatomist. Being a natural-born scientist, he started studying organs shared across species. He found a duct in animal skulls that sends saliva to the mouth. He refuted Descartes’ idea that mere humans had a pineal gland, proving it wasn’t the seat of the soul. This finding is arguably, the debut of neuroscience.1

Nicolas Steno
The life of the genius (Made by my friend Radhika Oguri.)

Connecting the dots

Most remarkable for the time was his method. Steno never let ancient texts, Aristotelian metaphysics, or Cartesian deductions overrule empirical experimental evidence. His vision was always uncluttered by speculation or rationalization and went deep. Steno had seen how gallstones form in wet organs by accretion. They obeyed moulding principles he knew from the goldsmith trade, rules useful across disciplines for understanding solids by their structural relationships. Later, the Grand Duke of Tuscany had him dissect a shark. Its teeth resembled tongue stones, odd rocks seen inside other rocks in Malta and the mountains near Florence.

Nicolas Steno
Elementorum myologiae specimen: Illustration from Steno's 1667 paper comparing the teeth of a shark head with a fossil tooth

Pliny the Elder, an old Roman naturalist, said these fell from the sky. In the Dark Ages, some folks believed they were snake tongues, petrified by Saint Paul. Steno saw that tongue stones were shark teeth, with the same signs of structural growth. Figuring similar things are made in similar ways, he argued the ancient teeth came from ancient sharks in waters that formed rock around the teeth and later became mountains. Rock layers were once layers of watery sediment, which would lay out horizontally, one atop another, oldest up to newest. Sounds simple today; back then, revolutionary!2

Under the geology

He invented stratigraphy and laid geology's groundwork. By finding one origin for shark teeth from two eras, by stating natural laws ruling the present also ruled the past, Steno planted seeds for uniformitarianism, the idea that history was shaped by processes observable today. In other words, the science of the past is similar to the science of the present. In the 18th and 19th centuries, English uniformitarian geologists, James Hutton and Charles Lyell studied current, prolonged rates of erosion and sedimentation. They realized the Earth had to be way older than the biblical estimate, 6000 years. Out of their work came the rock cycle, which combined with plate tectonics in the mid-twentieth century to give us the great molten-crusting, quaking, all-encircling theory of the Earth, from a gallstone to a 4.5 billion-year-old planet.3

Nicolas Steno
De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus (1669): Solids contained in solids.

Biology in the closet

Now think bigger; let's take it to biology. Imagine you see shark teeth in one layer and a fossil of an organism you've never seen under that. The deeper fossil's older, right? You now have evidence of the origin and extinction of species over time. Get uniformitarian! Maybe a process still active today caused changes not just in rocks but in life. It might also explain similarities and differences between species found by anatomists like Steno. It's a lot to ponder, but Charles Darwin had the time on a long trip to the Galapagos, reading a copy of his friend Charles Lyell's "Principles of Geology," which Steno "sort of" founded.

Now your turn

I have a personal message that I want to share with you guys. Sometimes in life, I get overconfident, and I’m probably not the only one who does this. But maybe I’m overconfident because of some book I’ve read or because of the life experience I had or maybe because of a past success I’ve had. Here’s where I am at right now, though. If I don’t approach each new experience with an appropriate balance between confidence and humility, there’s a good chance that I will fail. So moving forward, whether it's a physical challenge or a discussion with a friend, I'm going to try to maintain that balance between confidence and humility, so I don't end up looking stupid, (which can happen) sometimes in front of a lot of people on the internet. Teaching people how to maintain this balance between confidence and humility: that's what Nicolas Steno did to me.

Sometimes giants stand on the shoulders of curious little people. Nicolas Steno helped evolve evolution, broke ground for geology, and showed how unbiased, empirical observation could cut across intellectual borders to deepen our perspective only with his curiosity and humility. His most exceptional accomplishment, though, maybe his maxim, casting the search for truth beyond our senses. And our current understanding as to the pursuit of the beauty of the as yet unknown. Beautiful is what we see, more beautiful is what we know, most beautiful, by far, is what we don't. Have a good one. See you next Saturday!

  1. Reddit:r/theinvisiblegenius
  2. Instagram: @theinvisiblegenius
  3. Twitter: @notnitinchopra

Reference links

  1. Niels Stensen, 1638-1686: The Scientist who was Beatified - Hans Kermit - Google Books
  2. Romano, Marco (2014). "'The vain speculation disillusioned by the sense': The Italian painter Agostino Scilla (1629–1700) called 'The Discoloured', and the correct interpretation of fossils as 'lithified organisms' that once lived in the sea". Historical Biology. 26 (5): 631–651.
  3. Principles of Stratigraphy - Michael E. Brookfield - Google Books


  1. Amazing post, this guy truly is an invisible genius. Really inspiring!


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