Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

You're Old. You're a Rock. You Can See

I want to tell you the story of three rocks, starting with the oldest one ever found. That one is so small, if you put it in the palm of your hand you'd need a magnifying glass to spot it. It was found buried inside a hunk of sandstone near a sheep ranch in a remote part of Western Australia ...

/ Courtesy of University of Wisconsin
Courtesy of University of Wisconsin

... called the Jack Hills. It's not really a rock. It's a crystal, a zircon crystal, formed when the world was very, very young — about 4.374 billion years ago, as my NPR colleague Nell Greenfieldboyce recently reported. We know its age because we can measure how much uranium in it had decayed to become lead, and measure the movement of individual atoms (see Nell's story for details). Scientists are convinced that this crystal is so ancient it froze into place not too long after the moon was formed. It's that old.

If Only ...

Excuse me here, but I can't help myself — if that crystal had eyes, it would have looked up and the moon would have been 10 times bigger in the night sky. The moon was closer then. Oh, the amazing things an object that old might have seen as 4 billion years rolled by.

Which brings me to my real subject today: Rock Consciousness. What if (I know, I know, this isn't science, it's pure fancy, but still) rocks could, in their stolid, slow, mineral way, gaze out at us as we scuttle and multiply and build and destroy — what might they make of us? They are so patient. We are so — not.

Meet Das Rad...

I happen to know two Conscious Rocks. I met them in the enchanting short film Das Rad, nominated for an Academy Award in 2003 (long ago? Not in rock time). In the film, they're parked on a hillside somewhere in Germany; one of them suffers from occasional attacks of creeping lichen, and has to be scratched by the other. In the course of eight minutes, as they sit there in their charmingly rock-like way, we humans suddenly appear. At one point a caveman approaches and almost, almost has a world changing moment. But just as he's about to ... hey, I shouldn't be telling you this. You should be seeing it. This is the perfect time to imagine yourself as a mineral. ...

Das Rad (Rocks) was created by Chris Stenner,Arvid Uibel,Heidi Wittlinger, who were at that time students at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Germany.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.