Shen Kuo may have been one of the most talented people ever.
(Cover image credit: “yandang shan, clouds and sky” by Jan Christian Teller is licensed under CC BY 2.0)
We usually call someone who is gifted in a wide range of scientific disciplines a “Renaissance Man,” a strongly culturally biased label for Late Medieval European men who “did it all.”
Hundreds of years before the European Renaissance, Chinese scientist Shen Kuo (Shen Gua or sometimes Mengxi Weng) had already outclassed Da Vinci and the other European “Renaissance Men.”
Shen Kuo’s accomplishments and inventions are almost too numerous to list. He invented the needle magnetic compass along with the idea of magnetic declination. He was probably the first person to print with moveable type. He pioneered the use of a solar calendar in East Asia. He wrote about the function of a camera obscura hundreds of years before these objects were explained in Europe1,2.
Shen Kuo was an avid geologist. He may have invented geomorphology, and he wrote about sedimentation long before anyone in Europe. He authored of some of the oldest writings on paleontology (as I noted in my last post)1,2.
The field geologists out there may also be surprised to learn Shen was, as far as we know, the first to describe a Jacob’s staff, the instrument used, among other things, to measure geologic stratigraphy3.
Shen was intelligent and talented, and he wrote it all down in the 11th Century, long before anyone in Europe.
I am willing to bet most of us have never heard of him.
This week, I take a look at Shen’s many accomplishments in geology and paleontology and make the case that he belongs in my “Founding Five.” Part 2 will discuss why Shen Kuo was erased from history and discuss the controversial, and likely biased, viewpoint that he was not actually a scientist. (After all, he wrote about UFOs, no seriously he did!)
Fossils of the Yandang Shan Mountains
Shen Kuo was primarily a civil servant, and his first foray into science came as a result of his work building a drainage system to convert large swaths of swamp into farmland3. Shen’s civil service work would be the catalyst for most of his scientific exploits.
At an early age, Shen’s abilities were noticed by the imperial court, and he was given an official position as a scholar and ambassador in the imperial government3. Government work allowed Shen to travel across China and drove him to use science as a way to solve the land’s various problems.
Shen Kuo’s first geologic writings describe how landforms were shaped by the erosion of wind and water. In his sojourns across the Chinese countryside, he came across the Yandang Shan mountains, striking peaks of limestone that cut like a knife into the foggy sky. His astute observation of how these landforms were shaped by wind and water were written some 800 hundred years before these concepts were published in Europe1.
In 1070, Shen made his first major observation about fossils, one that last week I pointed out gives him a good claim as the founder of paleontology. He wrote how he observed “belts” (for us, beds/layers, strata) that contained “whelk-like animals, oyster shells, and bird’s eggs (fossil echinoids).”1
Like I said last week, the observation of marine fauna in mountain peaks was not necessarily novel, and had been written about for nearly 2000 years before Shen’s time. Many of the fossil “clams” that Shen described were actually brachiopods which had been known in China as “stone swallows”1.
Shen, however, correctly deduced the meaning of these odd fossils.
“So this place, though now a thousand li [unit of measure] west of the sea must have once been a shore. Thus what we call the “continent” must have been made of mud and sediment which was once below the water… the (mountain) was, according to ancient tradition [geologic time], by the side of the Eastern Sea, but now is far inland”Shen Kuo, ca. 1080
That observation would predate similar conclusions made in Europe by at least 400 years1.
Shen also described how the rivers he studied carried mud and silt long distances and deposited them down in other places. He then surmised, correctly, that this is how, as he put it, “the continent was laid down”.
Shen’s conclusion that rivers transport sediment and deposit it in new places predated the same conclusion James Hutton made in 1802, when the Scottish geologist supposedly “discovered” sedimentation1.
Shen wrote about other geologic phenomena including quick sands and petroleum seeps. He even suggested that the petroleum bubbling out of the ground may make a good substitute fuel to replace burning trees, although he used it primarily to make ink1.
Bamboo Shoots and Paleoclimatology
In 1080, Shen wrote about bamboo shoots, and in doing so arguably invented the science of paleoclimatology.
Since at least the 3rd Century CE, Chinese writers had mentioned petrified wood. It was well known in Shen’s time that these were the remains of older forests turned to stone. But up to his day, these petrified trees mostly looked “in place” in that they were similar to the trees that grew in the area1.
This would not be the case when Shen stumbled upon some petrified bamboo shoots.
Shen had traveled to a site of a landslide on a river bank as part of his service work. He wrote about his trip in his Dream Pool Essays:
“The bank collapsed, opening a space of several dozens of feet, and under the ground a forest of bamboo shoots was thus revealed. It contained several hundred bamboo with their roots and trunks all complete, and all turned to stone”Shen Kuo, Dream Pool Essays (1080)
That in itself was not an odd occurrence, but what was odd was where this was. Bamboo did not grow in that location. The fossilized shoots were also several feet below ground, and couldn’t have grown “in place.” Shen then wrote:
“Perhaps in very ancient times the climate was different so that the place was low, damp, gloomy, and suitable for bamboos. On the Jin-hua Shan in Wuzhou there are stone pine-cones, and stones formed from peach kernels, stone bulrush roots, stone fishes, crabs, and so on, but as these are all (modern) native products of that place, people are not very surprised at them. But these petrified bamboos appeared under the ground so deep, though they are not produced in that place today.”Shen Kuo, Dream Pool Essays (1080)
Shen’s reasoning sounds to me just like the conclusions that modern paleobotanists make. Shen observed a fossil assemblage and deduced that, in the past, the location had a much different climate.
I will conclude this section with my favorite quote of Shen, that finishes his anecdote of the fossil bamboo.
“This is a very strange thing.”Shen Kuo, Dream Pool Essays (1080)
I have said that very phrase many times when looking at my data.
I hope I have convinced you of why Shen Kuo should be considered one of my Founding Five paleontologists.
As I stated last time, Shen may not have been the inventor of paleontology, but he was one of the first to write about it scientifically and to draw conclusions about Earth history based on the distribution of fossil plants and animals. His contributions to paleontology and paleobotany, although long forgotten, are foundational.
Shen Kuo was one of the first paleontologists and we should include him in our discussions about the history of the science. He certainly was, to use a slightlly more inclusive term, a “Renaissance Person.”
(As a brief aside, I’m not the first person to refer to Shen Kuo as a “Renaissance Man.” Steven Edwards wrote an article for the AAAS in 2012 that did that. Here’s a link if you’re interested. Also that article is where I got the info that Shen has one of the oldest UFO sightings we know of, which I’ll probably mention again next time.)
- Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 3, Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.
- Sivin, Nathan. (1984). “Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China—Or Didn’t It?” in Transformation and Tradition in the Sciences: Essays in Honor of I. Bernard Cohen, 531–555, ed. Everett Mendelsohn. Cambridge: Cambridge.
- Sivin, Nathan (1995). Science in Ancient China: Researches and Reflections. Brookfield, Vermont: VARIORUM, Ashgate Publishing.