“These are the weird shapes that started everything.”
Tucked away in Guyot Hall, the geosciences enclave of Princeton University, Associate Professor Adam Maloof examines the rock around which his entire career revolves. Embedded in the limestone exterior is what, upon first glance, could be mistaken for a series of hieroglyphs—and yet, this particular fossil predates Homo sapiens by over 640 million years. After a silent moment between scientist and specimen, Maloof passes me the fossil. “You’re holding the oldest animal on Earth.” He smiles. “In the palm of your hand.”
Happenstance led Maloof to this fossil more than a decade ago. In the course of four summers, he and his colleagues had unknowingly trekked over the primordial rock while conducting fieldwork in South Australia—over 10,000 miles and a hemisphere away from Princeton’s Gothic scene. The team of geologists wasn’t looking to find the fossils. “We were studying ancient ice ages, “ says Maloof. “But every year, we’d go back and see them. They looked biological. But if they were animals…” He pauses, thinking about the age of the limestone formation. “They’d be 90 million years older than any other animal ever found.” Finally, in 2010, Maloof decided to collect a sample of the enigmatic rock for future experimentation. Back in the United States, he attempted a series of X-ray analyses—to no avail. Having arrived at a standstill, Maloof sent one of his graduate students, Catherine Rose, up to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work on the sample with the university’s manual rock grinder. After putting the sample on the grinder, “You crank the wheel, and it grinds it,” Maloof explains. “And then you take it off, take a picture, and put it back. She spent almost 24 hours a day grinding for about a week and a half, and she only got through about this much.” Maloof squishes his thumb and index finger together and laughs. “I think she was about to die. But we did it. And then we modeled the results and found these really interesting shapes.” The rest is—quite literally—history. These “interesting shapes,” it so happens, were the oldest metazoa known to man—vestiges of an ancient land down under, discovered in the ‘Land Down Under,’ no less.
Using the aftershock of his groundbreaking discovery to propel the field of geosciences forward, Maloof proposed the development of an automated grinder. As he explains, “I said, ‘Look at this—what we can do. But if it’s automated, we’ll be able to do it one hundred times faster, and more accurately.’” With that, the ‘Grinding, Imaging and Reconstruction Instrument’ was invented—a titan that, utilizing a diamond-impregnated wheel, can grind rock layers thinner than a human hair while capturing cross-sectional, 80-megapixel images. In 2013, Maloof christened his creation GIRI.
Now, Maloof and I stand outside of Guyot Hall, umbrellaless under the fickle mid-February sky. Raindrops dance across the lenses of my glasses, threatening to transform the world before me into a Monet watercolor. Maloof, who braves the elements in corduroy overalls and a thin navy zip-up, is unfazed. A native of the peninsular playground that is Nova Scotia, Maloof is a lifelong outdoorsman. In fact, his pursuit of a career in geology was not inspired by a fascination with plate tectonics but by his own natural inability to remain stationary. “If I wanted to have my brain working optimally,” explains Maloof, “I needed to be exercising. And if I wanted to exercise and be happy about it, I needed to be thinking. Just being forced to do sprints, I didn’t like. But if I was running to get to the top of a mountain…” He smiles. “I loved it.”
For now, however, Maloof has opted to bring his passion underground. Descending stairs behind Guyot Hall, Maloof motions, eyes gleaming, toward the doorway of his little-known laboratory and together, we venture into the heart of Grinder Lab. The building pulsates with the unremitting rhythm of the beast. Even with a two-room buffer separating us from the grinder, GIRI’s cacophony is engulfing, and yet, by Maloof’s standards, tame. (“You should hear a metal grinder,” he remarks with a grin.) Glancing around the storage room, I find myself dwarfed by floor-to-ceiling shelves. “Every year, we collect somewhere between two- and ten-thousand pounds of rocks,” says Maloof, standing on tiptoe to retrieve a sample. “Last summer alone, we went to Nevada, Ethiopia, Spain, Bolivia, and the Canadian Rockies. We go all over the world.”
Today, yet another country’s geological samples are being added to the repertoire. In the neighboring room, with the reverence of a churchgoer, a Japanese scientist gazes at GIRI through a Plexiglas partition. He is at confession, and the machine on the opposite side of the wall—one that he has pilgrimaged 6,745 miles to see—is his holy priest. Within seconds, an automated image is sent to the control room’s iMac and Maloof scurries, instinctively, to the foreigner’s side—like a moth drawn to an artificial flame. On the computer screen, a high-resolution cross-section greets the two geologists. They gape at its iridescence, entranced. “We’re almost the reverse of architects,” explains Maloof, pupils illuminated by the photo’s reflection. “We’re given a zillion geometric slices.” He smiles. “And we need to reconstruct the house.”
As GIRI’s rumbling crescendos in the neighboring room, Maloof turns to rifle through a tray that lies on the workbench behind us. “Some samples,” he says, returning to my side, “are precious. Like this.” Opening his fist, he reveals a celestial specimen. “This here is a one-of-a-kind meteorite,” explains Maloof. “Nothing else exists like this. We have one chance.” He pauses. “And if we screw it up…it’s gone.” With that, Maloof puts on his safety goggles. It’s time.
Trailing GIRI’s cacophonous concerto into the laboratory’s core, we encircle the grinder in silence. An 8,000-pound goliath, Maloof’s creation is a metallic hodgepodge of old and new—its industrial lower half composed of machinery used in the production of everything from airplane wings to pill bottle caps, and its patented, high-tech upper apparatus fashioned expressly for this laboratory. With fatherly pride, Maloof rattles off GIRI’s exhaustive list of features. When there is nothing left to say, we simply stand back and watch her rumble.
Minutes later, having bid GIRI farewell, Maloof and I head back inside to Guyot Hall’s Department of Geosciences. Pausing at the base of the stairwell, Maloof points upward, toward the craters in the century-old steps. Composed of serpentinite, a fairly malleable rock, the stairs are in a perpetual state of erosion from the feet of students and professors. And yet, Maloof concedes, these steps are pristine in comparison to the well-trodden sister stairs that lead up to the rival Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department. Together, we gaze up at the staircase in silence. After a moment, Maloof laughs softly. “It’s kind of sad…but just by looking, you can tell what our enrollment is.” With that, he bounds up the steps, two by two—making indentations of his own.
Later in the afternoon, as I trek back to my dorm room, I find myself shaking my head in amusement. An iPhone 6 in my right hand and a primordial relic in my left, I am anachronisms’ keeper. Sloshing through Princeton’s campus-turned-quagmire, I peer down to examine my bounty. While raindrops dot my cell phone screen, the Trezona Formation fossil nestled in the center of my palm remains untouched. Gazing out at the labyrinth of puddles before me, I breathe in the scent of damp earth, tighten the grip of my left hand, and step forward through the rain.