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nAz
04-11-2005, 02:01 PM
Zircon crystal sample believed to date back 4.4 billion years

Sunday, April 10, 2005 Posted: 7:59 AM EDT (1159 GMT)

Discovered in Australia in 1984, this speck of zircon crystal is believed to be the oldest known piece of Earth.

MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) -- Call it much ado about almost nothing.

To create buzz about an otherwise arcane subject, the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed off a tiny speck of zircon crystal believed to be the oldest known piece of Earth at about 4.4 billion years old.

Saturday's daylong celebration was capped with "The Rock Concert" by jazz musicians who composed music to try to answer the question: What does 4.4 billion years old sound like?

"This is it -- the oldest thing ever. One day only," said Joe Skulan, scientist with the UW-Madison Geology Museum, where the object was displayed under police guard. "The idea of having a big celebration of something that's so tiny -- we're playing with the obvious absurdity of it."

Jazz Passengers, a six-piece group from New York, was hired to compose music for the event. Composer Roy Nathanson said he mixed humor, jazz music, computer-generated beats and the occasional rocks being banged together to "follow the geological history of how this zircon came about."

"It's an amazing story. The whole thing is something that captures your imagination," said Nathanson, 53, a saxophonist who spent a year composing the performance.

Though scientists acknowledged there wasn't much to see, spectators used a microscope to check out the tiny grain, which measures less than two human hairs in diameter.

Analysis of the object in 2001 by John Valley, a UW-Madison professor of geology and geophysics, startled researchers around the world by concluding that the early Earth, instead of being a roiling ocean of magma, was cool enough to have oceans and continents -- key conditions for life.

"It's not very much to look at because it's so very small. But to me, the miraculous thing about the crystal is that we've been able to make such wide-ranging inferences about the early Earth," Valley said. "This is our first glimpse into the earliest history of the Earth."

Before its discovery, the oldest evidence for liquid water on the planet was from a rock estimated to be much younger -- 3.8 billion years old.

After the festivities, the object will return to its native Australia with Simon Wilde, professor at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia, who made its discovery in 1984.

The sample eventually will be put on display at a natural history museum in that country.