Sunday, March 9, 2008

My religion is nature

Oliver Sacks, protean man that he is, had some gems in the Sunday New York Times. Actually, fossils, thoughts about fossils and other gem-like thoughts. This post is cribbed shamelessly from an interview by David Colman.

Sacks collects fossils, and he has a slice of fossilized stromatolite, one of earth's earliest life forms. It dates from the Archean era, more that 3 billion years ago. Long thought extinct, a colony was discovered still alive in Shark Bay in Western Australia.

Stromatolites are made up of large colonies of bacteria, blue-green algae and sedimentary deposits. Stromatolites are thought to have converted the abundant carbon dioxide of early 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. The stromatolite is the fossil in the middle.

“I am horrified by transience,” Sacks told Colman. “If you’re religious, you can believe in the eternal. For me, the next best thing is the enduring.”

Sacks said he came to the natural sciences as a refuge from a chaotic boyhood. He cherishes these sciences when 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.”

Sacks also loves ferns and cycads, believing that plants that make a garish show of their sex organs — what we call flowers — are perhaps a bit vulgar. “I feel that flowers are Johnny-come-latelies,” he said, noting that ferns predated flowering plants by more than 200 million years.