Perhaps the World’s First Modern Geologist?

December 21, 2009

Shen Kuo
1031-1095 AD

Active during the Song dynasty (960-1127 AD), Shen Kuo was a brilliant Chinese scientist, mathematician, cartographer, engineer, and statesman. As a mathematician, he conceived of techniques that paved the way for high-order arithmetic progressions and spherical trigonometry. Shen hypothesized the concept of gradual climate change through his observations of fossilized bamboo in northern China. He also hypothesized that land formations were the result of geomorphology based upon his observations of inland marine fossils, soil erosion, and silt buildup. He improved the designs of various astronomical tools including the spherical astrolabe and the triangular blade of the sundial. Shen fixed the position of the pole star and corrected lunar and solar errors. He was the first to discover true north through his experiments with the magnetic compass. He worked extensively with optics, discussing the formation of rainbows by refraction, focal points, concave inversion, and describing the geometric and quantitive properties of the pinhole camera. In the field of archaeology, Shen recommended the use of metallurgy, geometry and optics to study the artifacts of the ancients. He also used the sight from an ancient crossbow he had uncovered to calculate the height of a distant mountain, using it as the survey device now known as Jacob’s staff. Despite his scientific interest, he never developed a scientific method and had a deep interest in the occult and the supernatural.


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