The Seashell Question

Thomas Bartholin, an anatomy professor from the university of Copenhagen, was famous for his discovery of the vessels that carry lymph throughout the body. Lymph is a transparent, yellowish fluid that plays an important role in the immune system and in the transportation of certain materials throughout the body. Bartholin not only conveyed an appreciation for anatomy to steno but introduced the famous seashell question to him.

In mountainous regions, objects which resembled seashells and other marine life-forms were found embedded in the rock of the mountains. Though their shape resembled that of marine life, their composition was of a different material, more similar to hardened rock than brittle shells. Did they grow naturally out of the Earth itself? or might they be remains of past marine life? one thing on which Catholics and Protestants did agree was the creation of the Earth and all life by an omnipotent God, but land and water were separated on the third day of creation, whereas fowl and water life were created on the fifth day. so, if the fossils were the remains of past marine life, how did they get to be embedded in dry land? (At the time the word fossil referred to anything that came from the Earth.) one possible explanation was the great flood described in Genesis. however, given the short period the entire Earth was covered by water, there was not enough time for slow clams to travel the distance to the remote locations where the fossils were sometimes found. Besides, they were made of a different material. The arguments went back and forth. This paradox bothered some more than others. steno listened to Bartholin's debate with intrigue and recorded several notes about fossils in his Chaos journal; nonetheless, he continued with his medical studies. he was particularly interested in anatomy.

steno originally had wanted to study mathematics, but medicine offered better prospects for a career. Anatomy seemed very clear and logical to steno. Perhaps it appeased his mathematical yearnings. After three years at Copenhagen, steno left for the Netherlands in possession of a letter of introduction from Bartholin. he stopped by Amsterdam and was hosted by a physician friend of Bartholin, Gerhard Blaes. In Amsterdam, Blaes gave steno private anatomy lessons.

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