Dr. Sacks can be even more primeval, turning the clock back as far as it will go. To demonstrate, he has a slice of fossilized stromatolite, among earth’s earliest life forms. They date from the Archean era, more than three billion years ago. Stromatolites, once thought to have been long extinct until a large living colony was discovered in Shark Bay in Western Australia in the mid-1950s, are made up of large colonies of bacteria, often blue-green algae, and sedimentary deposits, which grow naturally in a style that Dr. Sacks likened to a layer cake.
Maybe not the most appetizing cake, but he pointed out that stromatolites are held to be responsible for converting the abundance of carbon dioxide in the earth’s Archean-era atmosphere into oxygen. “Over the years, they made enough oxygen to make life possible for the rest of us,” he said.
This should endear them to even the most squeamish. It is their longevity, however, that enchants Dr. Sacks, a man who still writes on a typewriter. “They’re survivors,” he said. “I like the idea of ancient things which have adapted.”
“I am horrified by poor quality and transience,” he added. “If you’re religious, you can believe in the eternal. For me, the next best thing is the enduring.”
As this suggests, his feeling for stromatolites and other long-lived natural-history curiosities is no casual attitude. While he came to the natural sciences as a refuge from a chaotic boyhood, he cherishes them more now that, as he often sees, their integrity is under attack by religious fundamentalists.
“My religion is nature,” he said. “That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”
Monday, March 10, 2008
Oliver Sacks' Love of Fossils
From yesterday's NYT, a short piece on the prehistoric and lapidary devotions of the neurologist/essayist: