The Real Philosopher's Stone

Commentator Andrei Codrescu has always been in awe of rocks. He sees them as nature making a statement. He says the oldest terrestrial example of rock is a piece in a Wisconsin museum. He thinks it will become a symbol for everything that insists on being earthly.

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Commentator Andrei Codrescu has been thinking about another elemental matter, an item that's been around for quite a while.


Everything is older than we thought. The most ancient object of terrestrial origin is resting on a microscope slide inside at glass case in Madison, Wisconsin. It is 4.404 billion years old. It is a zircon that looks, to the naked eye, like a smudge. Its age points to an Earth older than previously thought by scientists when the ocean of magma that was then our planet cooled suddenly to 100 degrees centigrade, making life, among other things, possible.

This zircon also upset theories of the formation of the moon as well, pointing to a possibly older moon than anybody thought. This zircon has its own public relations department called The Stony Muse, which organized a rock concert featuring the Jazz Passengers with the express intention of celebrating and spreading this wondrous news to lay folk who, unlike scientists, can't grasp what it means that life might be older than anyone knew.

If there is poetry is science, this is doubtlessly it. There is certainly something awesome about this multibillion-year-old zircon, the oldest rock on Earth. Personally, I'm awed by rocks, any rocks, whether moon rocks or rocks from the Great Wall of China or pretty rocks from mountain streams. Rocks seem to me an attempt by the physical world to mark its presence within something durable and solid that stands up to the huge empty spaces that haunt from within and without. In a mythologized world, gods live in rocks, and some carbon-based gods even come in diamonds. Geology is a triumph of form over magma, of presence over emptiness.

The zircon in the Geology Museum at the University of Wisconsin in Madison should be replicated and sold in necklaces, pendants, good-luck charms and piercing jewels. This zircon, the Lucy of stones, might eventually become a symbol for everything that stubbornly insists on being earthly--unlike words, which are not. The zircon also has a Web site,

BLOCK: Andrei Codrescu teaches at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

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