Nicolas Steno

Danish Scientist

Nicolas Steno was a Danish scientist, a pioneer in anatomy and geology. He became a Catholic bishop in his later years.

by 1659 he questioned the knowledge of the natural world accepted in his time.[1][2] He questioned the idea that fossils grew in the ground, and the explanations of rock formation. His investigations made him one of the founders of modern stratigraphy and modern geology.[3]

Geology and stratigraphyEdit

De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus (1669)

Steno, in his Dissertationis prodromus of 1669 is credited with four of the defining principles of the science of stratigraphy. Much simplified, his ideas were:

  1. the law of superposition: Lower strata were laid down earlier than upper strata.
  2. the principle of original horizontality: when one of the upper strata was being formed, the lower stratum had already become a solid.
  3. the principle of lateral continuity: when any given stratum was being formed it was encompassed on its sides by another solid substance.
  4. When any stratum was being formed, all the matter resting upon it was fluid, so at the time when the lowest stratum was being formed, none of the upper strata existed.[4]

Steno's ideas still form the basis of stratigraphy and were key in the development of James Hutton's theory of infinitely repeating cycles of seabed deposition, uplifting, erosion, and submersion.[5]


  1. Rosenberg, Gary D. (ed) The revolution in geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Boulder, Co: Geological Society of America. pp. 179–186. ISBN 978-0-8137-1203-1.
  2. Kooijmans, Luuc 2007. Gevaarlijke kennis — inzicht en angst in de dagen van Jan Swammerdam (in Dutch). Amsterdam: Bert Bakker. ISBN 978-90-351-3250-4
  3. Wyse Jackson, Patrick N. ed 2007. Four centuries of geological travel : the search for knowledge on foot, bicycle, sledge and camel. London: The Geological Society. ISBN 978-1-86239-234-2
  4. Steno, Nicolas (1916). Nicolas Steno's dissertation concerning a solid body enclosed by process of nature within a solid: an English version with an introduction and explanatory Notes. Translated by Winter, John. New York & London, Macmillan. pages=229–230.
  5. Brookfield, Michael E. 2004. Principles of stratigraphy, p116. Malden, Mass. Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-1164-5. Retrieved 12 November 2014.