17th-century Catholic bishop who was geologist makes news

The first Google doodle of 2012 was a tribute to Bishop Nicolaus Steno on his 374th birthday, Jan. 11. The bishop was a Danish anatomist and geologist famous for his “principle of original horizontality,” or the theory that layers of rock are formed horizontally — hence the rock-layer image for the Google doodle.

Google doodles — the changes made to the Google logo to celebrate holidays, anniversaries and the lives of famous artists, pioneers and scientists — typically draw attention to known and unknown figures. To date the Google team, according to their site, has created more than 1,000 doodles.

Often the doodles generate their own news stories, and this image was no exception. A story in the Christian Science Monitor points out that the bishop’s legacy, “like the mysterious stones that he examined, has since been obscured by layers of historical sediment.”

The bishop, known in Denmark as Bishop Niels Stensen, was born in 1638 and beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988. He is considered the founder of modern geology who also made notable discoveries in anatomy before he joined the Catholic Church and became a priest. He also formulated Steno’s law, which deals with the relationship of angles on the faces of crystals.

He not only studied rocks and fossils extensively but he also discovered that the heart is a muscle that pumps blood and that tears are formed in the eye.

A story in the Los Angeles Times blog about the doodle described the bishop as a 17th-century mythbuster who “threw it all over for God” when he became Catholic in 1667, a priest in 1675 and a bishop in 1677.

The next day the Times blog posted comments by readers who disagreed that science took a back seat to the bishop’s religion.

Readers noted that the bishop, who died in 1686 at the age of 48, continued his pursuit of science after becoming a priest by studying the brain and the nervous system.

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