A Sedimental Journey

Alan Cutler '75 dug up the story of the saint who laid the foundations for modern geology studies

by Burl Gilyard, The Carleton VOICE

In 1669, with the publication of a slender volume called De solido, the Danish-born Niels Stensen, also known as Nicolaus Steno, essentially gave birth to the field of geology. In 2003, with the publication of The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius Who Discovered a New History of the Earth, Alan Cutler '75 resurrected Steno from his unmarked tomb in the footnotes of history.

"I was planning to write a book about geology and how we know what we know about the past," says Cutler, who spent two years researching and writing the book. "I was interested in Steno because you learn his laws of stratigraphy-how layers are laid down in a sequence-in your first geology class. There's a paragraph about him in every geology textbook. It was originally just going to be one chapter of a general book about geology. [But] I started learning all these amazing things about him."

Today, Steno's ideas are the very fundamentals of geology, but in his own age, they were new and heretical notions. He argued that the layers of rock and the fossils embedded therein chronicle the history of Earth itself. But his assertion raised tension between science and religion, between accepted truths and faith. Although Steno was a man of deep faith, some religious thinkers of his day fretted that Steno's theories argued against the idea that God had created the world. In Steno's time, Earth was believed to be a few thousand years old. Steno's breakthrough eventually led to the realization that the planet is vastly older.

Steno (1638-86) had converted to Catholicism before his groundbreaking study was published; he later became a priest, then a bishop. After his death, his ideas began to find wider acceptance: "The 18th century was the century of Steno's triumph," writes Cutler. But it wasn't until 1988, more than 300 years after Steno's death, that the Catholic Church decided to beatify the cleric-geologist.

Cutler, who has written about scientific topics for the Washington Post and other publications, freely acknowledges his debt to John McPhee, who has written extensively about North American geology, and recent science books that have found a popular audience, including Dava Sobel's Longitude, a 1995 best-seller. Like Longitude, which chronicles how an English clockmaker solved the riddle of determining longitude at sea, Cutler's narrative (which runs just over 200 pages) is penned in a spare, pithy, accessible style.
Since hitting bookstores in April 2003, The Seashell on the Mountaintop has garnered a wide range of praise. The book was chosen by Barnes & Noble for its "Discover Great New Writers" program, an in-store promotion highlighting first-time writers. Simon Winchester, author of The Map That Changed the World, praised Cutler's book ("splendid") in a Boston Globe review, and the New York Times Book Review called it "marvelous," noting that "Cutler nicely describes how hypotheses were argued with one eye on observable facts and the other on Scripture."

Now the book is attracting global attention. The United Kingdom edition appeared in August 2003. Editions in German, Swedish, French, Spanish, Italian, and Korean also are planned.

Cutler studied geology at Carleton and now largely splits his time between academia and the Smithsonian Institution, where he works as a research associate and visiting scientist. Karl Flessa, a University of Arizona geosciences professor who served as Cutler's PhD adviser, admires Cutler's accessible volume. "He told the story of one of the last great unsung heroes in the history and development of geology," Flessa says. "Everybody reads about Steno in introductory textbooks, but you could never get beyond that. Alan is making the story of Steno available to a lot of people."

But it was the broader story of science in the 17th century-a pivotal era in the history of understanding the earth-that most intrigued Cutler. "I realized that this was a key time in the history of science," he says. "I was fascinated by the complicated relationship between science and religion. A lot of the resistance to Steno's ideas came from scientists, who could be as dogmatic as some of the more conservative religious figures when it came to arguing against the idea that the earth was more than a few thousand years old."

Cutler is currently preparing to write a second book, also aimed at a mainstream audience. He's researching several scientific topics, looking for a good yarn. "It's a very good way to teach science," Cutler says of the narrative form he employed in his study of Steno. "I wanted it to be a book that ordinary people could read and enjoy."

Burl Gilyard wrote about Carls involved in public radio for the fall Voice.

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