My Grandson The Rock : Krulwich Wonders... In this story, we explain why someday you might have a rock for a grandson.
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Listen To A 13-Billion-Year-Long Story

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My Grandson The Rock

Listen To A 13-Billion-Year-Long Story

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This next story takes 13-and-a-half billion years to tell. But that seems a little long, even for Public Radio. So our science correspondent Robert Krulwich has cut it down a bit. So get ready for what Robert calls a History of Rocks. Don't be fooled. It's a little more than that. The ending will surprise you much more.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Bob, you there?

Professor ROBERT HAZEN (Research Scientist, Carnegie Institute): I'm here. Yeah.

KRULWICH: So what Robert Hazen, a scientist at the Carnegie Institute, and I are going to do is we're going to talk about rocks.

(Soundbite of falling rocks)

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: Because when Hazen and his colleagues went back and recounted the history of all the rocks and all the minerals that have ever appeared in the universe since it began, in order - and rocks, by the way, come for minerals -they bumped into a rather unusual surprise.

Prof. HAZEN: Yeah.

KRULWICH: So let's start counting. If you go back to the Big Bang...

(Soundbite of rumbling)

KRULWICH: ...the universe begins with a super-hot burst of energy, and then gradually, that energy cools into hydrogen atoms and helium atoms. And you get vast clouds of gas floating through empty space. And then...

Prof. HAZEN: Gravity takes over, and gravity is the great engine of designing and building new minerals.

KRULWICH: Gravity pulls things together. So gas gets crunched into tight little balls. They turn bright. They become stars. And those stars, a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, they produce the earliest minerals.

Prof. HAZEN: When we look, there are about a dozen different minerals that occur, and diamond is the first.

KRULWICH: Diamonds. Why diamonds?

Prof. HAZEN: Because when big stars explode...

KRULWICH: And stars do explode.

(Soundbite of an explosion)

KRULWICH: ...and the heat from those explosions, like a furnace, forges new atoms, like carbon. And carbon, of course, includes...

Prof. HAZEN: Microscopic fragments of diamonds. And I like to think if you are just in the right place and the right time, you might see this little sparkle or glitter in the sky from all those diamonds.

(Soundbite of chimes)

KRULWICH: So this is the Paul McCartney/John Lennon universe. This is "Lucy in the Sky."

Prof. HAZEN: There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HAZEN: Yes. That's the beginning. That's probably 13-plus billion years ago.

KRULWICH: Okay. But the big surprise, it's still ahead of us, 'cause all this while, gravity's been creating asteroids. And the squeeze of all that dust crunched together with the occasional asteroid collision...

(Soundbite of a crash)

Prof. HAZEN: Splat. And you form a new suite of high-pressure, what are called shock minerals.

KRULWICH: So now we've gone from atoms to stars, to starburst, to diamonds, to shocks, till - what's our mineral count now, look at this point?

Prof. HAZEN: Well, now we're up to 250. We got up to 250 at the (unintelligible).

KRULWICH: Whoa. But we're not done, because now the rocks clump into bigger spheres, and we get a planet.

Prof. HAZEN: A planet.


Prof. HAZEN: Okay, now you got to tell me which kind of planet.

KRULWICH: How about a planet with a volcano, so things melt and then cool, and...

(Soundbite of explosion effect)

Prof. HAZEN: Ah, the...

(Soundbite of explosion effect)


Prof. HAZEN: I love volcanoes. That's great, because if you - especially if you have a volcano that goes...

(Soundbite of explosion effect)

Prof. HAZEN: ...that means you've got a lot of volatiles.

KRULWICH: And what's a volatile?

Prof. HAZEN: Water.


Prof. HAZEN: And the water makes atmosphere, and then it rains, and then the rain cools the surface. And then you've got puddles and you get ponds and you get oceans and lakes and rivers. And that's what dissolves the rocks and gives you salt.

(Soundbite of rain)

KRULWICH: Salt contains water, and clay contains water. There's a whole class of minerals - they call them hydrates - made from the water.

Prof. HAZEN: And this gets you up to 500 really quickly.

KRULWICH: And then the water - and we're talking about water here on Earth -seeps down deep into cracks and crevices...

(Soundbite of dripping water)

Prof. HAZEN: For billions and billions of years, pulling out the copper, pulling out zinc. And all these different combinations create little, tiny grains of new minerals.

KRULWICH: Emeralds, for example, form when water carries off beryllium. Topaz forms when water carries off fluorine. Water adds, subtracts and creates minerals...

Prof. HAZEN: That never existed before.

KRULWICH: So, the mineral count now - from exploding stars and suns and collisions and volcanoes and plate tectonics - is about what?

Prof. HAZEN: Fifteen hundred. We can get to 1,500.


Prof. HAZEN: One thousand, five hundred.

KRULWICH: That means we started at twelve. We're now up to 1,500. I guess we're done. Unless...

Prof. HAZEN: There is more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: Really? What else could create a new rock?

Prof. HAZEN: Life.

KRULWICH: Life. How's life effect rocks?

Prof. HAZEN: Because life does things to its surroundings that are amazing.

KRULWICH: For example, we had an early form of life on Earth.

Prof. HAZEN: Slime.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: There must be a more respectable name.

Prof. HAZEN: They're called cyanobacteria, but it's really just green slime. It's the scum that you find on ponds. It's the stuff that produces most of the oxygen on Earth today, and it's amazing what it's done.

KRULWICH: Because when you have more oxygen, first of all, you get more rust. And you get more minerals with oxygen in them, like a turquoise. You get more oxygen breathers: shellfish, coral. They die, and then they become sedimentary rocks, like a limestone...

Prof. HAZEN: Those minerals can only occur if life arises first.

KRULWICH: After all, when you look at the White Cliffs of Dover, what you're looking at is mostly dead plankton, and then the plants stick their roots into the rocks.

Prof. HAZEN: And they break them down. The things they break them down into are also weird and new.

(Soundbite of marching drums)

KRULWICH: Okay. Now comes the surprise: Before there was life, we counted 1,500 minerals in the universe. Once life begins, nearly four billion years ago, that number jumps all the way to...

Prof. HAZEN: About 4,500 minerals.

KRULWICH: Four thousand, five hundred. The number just tripled, which means, I guess, that when rocks meet life, rocks multiply.

Prof. HAZEN: Absolutely.

KRULWICH: That's so weird. Because, I mean, I've always thought, you know, in the game 20 Questions, where you say animal, vegetables or mineral, they're separate categories.

Prof. HAZEN: You'd think so. We'd think these are separate.

KRULWICH: Yeah, but you're now saying that life can effect non-life.

Prof. HAZEN: It's profound, because every atom in our bodies came from Earth. Every breath we breathe, every bite of food we take, we are cycling atoms that have been back and forth between life and rocks, and life and rocks a thousand times.

KRULWICH: When you eat a raisin, you're getting - you know the expression -vitamins and minerals. So you're putting iron in your blood. When you drink a class of milk, you're putting calcium in your bones. When you're alive, you need minerals. And when you die...

Prof. HAZEN: Every atom in our body is going to go back to the rocks. You know, ashes to ashes and dust to dust, we will become part of the rock cycle again. And then the atoms that are in the rocks today will become part of our children and our grandchildren.

KRULWICH: So we are changed by minerals. But the surprise here is that minerals are changed by us.

Prof. HAZEN: This is it: It's the co-evolution of life and rocks. Rocks make life. Life makes rocks.

KRULWICH: And the more life there is, the more rocks there are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: Who knew?

Robert Krulwich, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds")

INSKEEP: Robert Krulwich, he's a rock. And you can get more of his stories in his new blog: Krulwich Wonders. You need to stroke your chin as you say that. You can find it at

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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