I cannot resist writing a concise commentary and discussion of a brief article by Prof. Juan Manuel García Ruíz (Research Professor at the CSIC in Granada, Spain) in a recent issue of the widely read Spanish Newspaper ‘El País’. His focus is a purported melon that was petrified by the Prophet Saint Elijah, in response to a cunning temptation by none other than Satan himself. (http://elpais.com/elpais/2015/05/07/ciencia/1431017789_237800.html). St. Elijah’s miracles and extraordinary feats are well known to scholars of the Christian tradition but the article by García Ruíz uses a revised version of one of them related by Father Manuel de San Jerónimo in his book Reforma de los Descalzos de Nuestra Señora del Carmen, published in 1706. The reformation of a wide range of religious orders was intensely pursued in Spain in the late sixteenth century to prevent what was perceived as corruption of the fundamental values of the convent life. Mystical figures such as St. Teresa de Avila (later St. Teresa de Jesus: 1515-1582; canonized in 1622) and St. Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross: 1542-1591; canonized in 1726)), were prominent in these efforts.
Using a witty language, Prof. García Ruíz narrates how St. Elijah was tempted by Satan with a fresh and juicy half-melon ready to be eaten, after our prophet had been already several days fasting in the sweltering sun of the Sinai desert. Upon the realization by St. Elijah of the true intentions of Satan, he exclaimed: ‘Halt Satan, I command you to be converted into stone’ , and the salacious melon transformed itself into a stone (Fig. 1).
Whether the narration is true or not we are not going to argue. The fact is that in a reformed convent of the Discalced Carmelites in the shrine of Sanlúcar la Mayor (Seville, Spain) there is a mineral formation with the shape of an open melon, with a legend saying that this was the very same one that St. Elijah trans mutated to avoid temptation (Fig. 1).
Very elegantly, Prof. García Ruiz uses this focal point to introduce the notion that many rock/mineral formations at the macroscopic (as in the case of the melon) and microscopic level resemble biologic or organic forms. Without disturbing the community of the Discalced Carmelite sisters, he cannot fully confirm that the purported melon is a beautiful specimen of Calcedonian geode with a textured gradient going from a dark and smooth exterior to crystalline quartz in the interior. However, it is almost certain that this is the true origin of the petrified melon, a formation quite plausible in the Sinai Peninsula or in the arid regions of Magreb. Thus, he illustrates the use of the concrete shape and form of rock or mineral formations to infer, with full confidence, an organic or biological origin, by whatever processes (miraculous or supernatural).
But as Prof. García Ruiz also notes and knows very well, since it is a major area of his research, the reverse is also often concocted: the inference that inorganic forms with suggestive curvatures and forms reminiscent of organic arrangements must be of biological origin. These types of extrapolations are particularly dangerous when the paleontologists are attempting to characterize some of the earliest ‘life forms’ or the primordial ‘micro fossils’ of ancient life. Indeed, these extrapolations (on either side of the dichotomy) and on any metric scale (from microscopic to macroscopic) arise from confounding the substantial and the external, the inner genuine origin with the accidental resemblance.
To close this concise commentary I will only add a new idea to the observations of Prof. García Ruíz in his insightful article. Simply, we tend to underestimate the creative forces of the basic elements of matter (such as atoms and molecules) and invoke supernatural causes to explain complex but natural phenomena. We should remind ourselves constantly of the ingenious ways in which natural elements and forces, under different conditions, can create forms and entities that we could have never imagined, based on our common day-to-day experience. I will just mention two simple examples that anyone can recognize.
First, consider, the immense creativity of one of the simplest components of our world: water. It can create immense mountains of ice, rivers and exquisite and delicate snow or ice crystals as well as the transient clouds, all using a simple composition of two atoms of Hydrogen and one of Oxygen and a variety of physical parameters: atmospheric pressure, relative humidity, temperature and wind velocity among them (Figs. 2,3).
Second, the ubiquitous element carbon alone can produce various types of coal, lead pencils and the exquisite diamonds as well as the subtle and elegant fullerenes, containing clusters of 60 atoms in an elegant icosahedral-like atomic soccer ball. In addition, the combination of carbon atoms with some other light elements such as Oxygen, Nitrogen and Sulfur produces the myriad of proteins that we know and that are a key constituent of life on Earth, from sophisticated catalysts to hair and skin. Let’s just consider these simple facts before we try to invoke miracles or supernatural phenomena to explain what we see, no matter how extraordinary.