Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Looking after pet rocks

Dear all,
It's been a very busy month! As many of you know, because I've met you, I've spent a lot of time running around my gallery making sure that you don't break anything - and that you all enjoy yourselves, of course! I'm sorry I can't be there every minute, but it's been very good to meet all of you that I have, and trying to answer all your fascinating questions. Not so many of the really hard ones, please - how am I to know what minerals there are on planets around alpha centauri? Of course, I've got some experiments planned, but there are always problems with the budget...
I've had a lot of interest in how to look after my pet rocks, so I thought I'd write you a little guide to finding and caring for them. I hope you find it as fulfilling a hobby as I do, but please don't take on the responsibility lightly. A rock is not just for Christmas, you know, and I can't stand the thought of poor neglected pebbles sitting in a dusty corner just because someone has got bored of them.

Any questions or advice wanted, just ask. Good luck... (Especially to the rocks!)

Two of my pet rocks, which Dr. Sock has kindly knitted hats for. The igneous one on the left is clearly delighted with the clolour scheme, whereas the slightly confused sandstone is a little distracted by its nose. Discovering their facial features for the first time can be a source of some confusion for rocks, especially if they had plans to be a model or film star.


Finding and caring for your Pet Rock

It may come as a surprise to many, but rocks with personalities are all around us. Have you ever had the feeling that the pebbles on the beach are giggling at you? Or that you’re being followed by stones around the garden? Of course, they are extremely shy. Until you get to know them very well indeed, you probably won’t be able to see them moving, or really understand what they’re trying to say. With a little effort, though, you can learn to love the friendly rocks in your neighbourhood, and they can become excellent pets.

Choosing your pet rock
Rocks that might want to become your pet can be found in many places. You will find some subterranean ones burrowing in the soil in your garden, and once they’ve had a good bath, you might find that they become quite beautiful. They may have some rough edges, and sometimes they hide underground through a feeling of shame that they’re not as smoothly polished as other pebbles… but they are often very loyal, and have the most complicated personalities of them all.
For those without a garden of their own, some rather glamorous relatives can be found alongside rivers and by the sea, or from wild places. Of course, it goes without saying that you should never even consider kidnapping a pebble from someone’s garden – they are probably quite happy there, and will pine if taken away. Even taking a pebble from farmland could cause problems – it is sometimes tricky recognising a wild pebble from a free-range one. It is actually illegal to remove pebbles from beaches in most places, so make sure you get permission from the landowner if you want to take one or two to a new home. I’m assuming you’re allowed to find yourself a pebble in the place you’ve chosen, though.

Sometimes there seem to be too many rocks to choose from, especially when you meet the gregarious seaside varieties. When you see a rock that you like, be careful when you pick it up. It often has lots of tiny friends that have come round to visit, and are hiding underneath it. Insects, crabs and other creatures are very fragile, and many of them live underneath the rock; if there are lots of creatures there, put it back gently and look for another. Rocks with such a big circle of friends would be very sadly missed.

Sometimes people are tempted to take more rocks to look after than they can really cope with. For beginners, a small group (two or three) is ideal. One on its own might get lonely, but more than three and you risk them not getting on with each other, especially in a small house. Selecting the stones with the right personalities is difficult but very important. Of course, if you find two or three rocks that have chosen to be together in the wild, you know they’ll be alright at home as well.

What you can do for your rock

Sometimes it is difficult to see the features on your new pet rock. Spend a little while getting to know it before you do anything rash – working out which end is the front, for example, is quite important. Once you’re sure, you can help your rock to see by adding some eyes. Painting them on will work, but sticking some googly ones on is even better, so it can look in different directions when it wants to. Be careful that you put the eyes on the front end, in a sensible position, and that they’re not going to fall off or rub off too easily. Once a pet rock has got itself some eyes, it will miss them if they’re gone, and become depressed. A sad rock is a miserable thing indeed, and you will want to do everything you can to make it feel thoroughly looked after.

Finding the other parts of their face can be harder, but an easy way is to leave a marker pen next to your rock, then give it some peace and quiet. Come back a few hours later, or after a day or two. Be patient – it’s probably nervous. If it likes you, then you may well find that it has drawn on a line where its mouth is (and perhaps a nose as well).

You can tell a lot from the expression it draws. A big grin means that it has settled in already and will make a splendid pet. Don’t be worried if it has a little bit of a frown, or a puzzled sort of expression – these might just be a little grumpy, but are equally lovable once you get to know them. They might well be more intelligent, as well. If you find it has drawn a ferocious snarl with sharp teeth, then you’ve probably picked a bad one. These will never be happily domesticated, and you should return it to the wild before it bites you. Carefully. I’d advise wearing gloves.

Although your pet rock will be comfortable enough without any clothes, those who really want to care for them might wish to knit or sew them a little woolly scarf or hat for the winter months. It certainly isn’t needed in the summer, but is bound to be appreciated in the cold nights.
You then need to think about where to keep it. Many people just let them have the run of the house, and they will certainly enjoy the freedom. Like all pets, though, it is good for them to have a little place to call their own, even if it’s just a corner of the sofa. A tray with sand in will make a seaside pebble feel at home, and a bed of dry grass might be comforting to a garden rock. It is good to have something that will remind them of their previous home – as long as their new home is better, of course!

Many rocks like to have a few simple toys – a marble, a ribbon, that sort of thing. Some will enjoy a little climbing frame, if you have one – but they are often shy about using them when anyone is watching. Don’t expect your rocks to be running around everywhere as soon as you take them home – they’re slow-moving creatures by nature, and take time to get used to a new home. With a bit of thoughtfulness, though, you can cater for anything they might want.

You should be aware that many rocks will have different personalities, and often it will depend on what species they are. You must remember that rocks are very, very old, and are extremely patient. They might seem to be a bit slow, but that’s because some of them remember the dinosaurs, and they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.

Assuming you don’t have a bad one (as described above), your pet rock may turn out to be docile, lazy, exuberant, mischievous, or grumpy – it’s hard to guess, and you just have to keep getting to know it to find out. Volcanic rocks are often the most docile – they want a bit of peace, after all the excitement of the volcano. It’s often the sandstones and slates that are most mischievous, and many of them will take great delight in hiding in surprising places. It’s the bouncy metamorphic ones you have to watch out for most, though – they may be small, but they’re very hard, so make sure they have enough to keep them happy, or they may start misbehaving.

It is often useful to keep a little diary of how your new pet is developing, and it will make for fascinating reading for future generations. If, in the end, your pet rock escapes back into the wild, don’t worry too much. It will, I’m sure, remember you fondly, and think of the experience as a grand holiday. Don’t feel sad – it will be quite happy out in the rivers and woods once again, and you can simply go and find a new one...


  1. I do have to caution those who might want to ensure that their rocks are properly attired: make sure you have something for every single rock, or they'll get jealous. The rocks that I didn't knit hats for now have their googly little eyes fixed on the lovely wool that I have earmarked for knitting the geological column with.

  2. I love you. And your rocks. (First-year geologist here!)

    We're coming to the museum tomorrow, hope to see you there!

  3. Honestly! I'll be in trouble with Dr. Sock if you carry on like that... Glad you like the rocks, though - although it sounds like you're already converted! :)

    I might well be around in the afternoon - need to check how (if?) my crystal gardens are growing, and see if the cave painting has progressed beyond the graffiti stage. Toodle-pip,
    Dr. Rock

  4. Hi Dr Rock,

    I came to your talk last night at the City Museum and loved it! Your exhibition is brilliant - alot more interesting than your usual minerals in glass cabinets!

    I am currently in my second year of PhD in Chemistry looking at the origins of life and I am hoping to use prebiotic minerals as catalytic surfaces. Minerals are actually everywhere!

    Keep up the brilliant work. If you ever need an assistant let me know!

  5. Dear Dr Rock,

    With the ash cloud (what's in it?) approaching us from Greenland, should I be taking my pet rocks indoors?

  6. Hi Mark,
    I can understand your concern about the ash. It's mostly tiny bits of glass with all manner of ions in it - calcium, aluminium, iron, and so on. I'm just looking at an analysis of the ash sent by my colleague at Thermo-Fisher, so hopefully more about that in a bit.

    In general, pet rocks will consider a sprinkling of ash to be quite a treat. It's extremely sharp, so if you see them rolling in it, then they're probably just scratching an itch. In this Eyjafjallajokull ash, though, there is a lot of fluorine, which can cause problems when mixed with water. In a worst-case scenarion (if your pet has gathered all the dust in one place, and if having a dust-bath when it rains, for example), your pet rock may start dissolving at the edges (view with electron microscope to see). The cure for that is a good rinse, then a long soak in clean water. If your rock is a little vain, then a coat of varnish will stop any ash-relasted issues that might arise. Above all, though, remember that they're getting to meet distant relatives, so as long as it's dry you can let them frolic to their hearts' content.

    Hope that helps!
    Dr. Rock.

  7. There was another comment as well, which has vanished! How strange. It was very complimentary, though (I didn't make it up, honest), and from a PhD student. Thank you very much for the appreciation, and I'm very glad that it meets with your approval! :)

  8. Hi I've got 4 pet rocks how can I make there home more cozy and playful? thanks