Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

The Philosopher's Stone: In Praise of the Ancient Zircon

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Everything is older than we thought. I'm not sure how old you thought everything was. I know that some people think everything, including themselves, are only about 2,000 years old. Others, like myself, think that everything is fairly recent, about 50 years max. Before that there was magma. And before that was the Word, I'm not sure which word exactly, but I sometimes hear a pre-thing vibration that was set off by the first Word and imparted to the rest through time. Every word since contains an echo of the first Word and can be listened to (backwards) on sensitive equipment.

Now, it may turn out that we are all wrong, all of us. The "most ancient object of terrestrial origin," and I'm quoting here, is 4.404 billion years old and is resting on a microscope slide inside a glass case in Madison, Wisc. It's a zircon that looks to the naked eye like a smudge. Its age points to an earth older than previously thought (by scientists) and to the sudden cooling of the ocean of magma to 100 degree Centigrade. Which means that life could have started way back when, not just way back then. This zircon also upsets theories of the formation of the moon, pointing to a possibly older moon. 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. The zircon also has a Web site: geologyandart.net. If there is poetry in science, this is doubtlessly it. There is certainly something awesome about this multi-billion-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 University of Wisconsin Geology Museum 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.

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