Pros:Fascinating and wide ranging discussion of a potentially boring topic.
Cons:The reader may experience some minor chafing.
The Bottom Line: This hardcover edition of Sand has a blurb on the back cover by the guy who wrote Dust, a book that The Bottom Line plans to hunt down soon.
Everybody knows sand. We've all played in it, lounged on it and cleaned it out of our various crevices. However, it wasn't until I picked up Sand, by British geologist Michael Welland, that I learned how endlessly complicated sand can be, so much so that even Einstein was intimidated by its many complexities.
In ten chapters, Welland takes the reader on an amazingly comprehensive tour of the world of sand. Starting with analysis of the individual grains, each with its own life story and moving on to discussion of the mysterious ways they move together en masse, he displays an exhaustive knowledge of the many secrets of sand. As I expected, he spends much of the book discussing rivers, deserts and beaches, but what I didn't expect is the endless variety and permutations that these locations can present when one really looks closely.
With a pleasantly readable style, Welland ventures far beyond the potentially tedious world of Earth Science 101 and explores the impact that sand has had on engineering, technology, archeology, geology, history, astronomy, recreation and art, both ancient and modern. If there is a movie or work of literature that uses sand as a metaphor that isn't mentioned in this book, I'd be surprised.
I found this 300 page journey hard to put down for three reasons. First, Welland does a great job of describing how examination of sand can reveal so much about Earth's past.
Digging at the mouth of the Salmon River in Oregon, he finds a layer of what appears to be beach sand sandwiched between the typical dirt and mud:
"It's clearly out of place, not part of the normal sequence of events - it's tsunami sand. In places, tsunami sand has been found directly on top of the remains of fire pits dug by the native inhabitants - perhaps abandoned in panic as the water surged toward them."
Later, he writes about three billion year-old rocks from South Africa:
"These rocks consist of multitudes of stacked repetitions of twinned layers, a fine sand deposited as the tide came in, and silt and mud as it went, more calmly, out. The layers vary systematically in thickness and in grain size, reflecting variations in the strength of the tidal currents, and these variations result from the tidal cycles that we see continuing today."
From analysis of these tidalites, he calculates that three billion years ago, a month was only 20 days long and there were 550 days in a year. After thoroughly exploring the sands of Earth, he goes on to discuss what various robotic explorers can tell us about the sands of Venus and Saturn's moon Titan, writing at length about Mars and its massive sand dunes.
Second, I really enjoyed his lengthy, yet straightforward, discussion of the many essential technological uses of sand. From the invention of glass, to the intricacies of the computer chip and nanotechnology he makes a strong argument for sand as a key player in the growth of modern civilization. That he can write about these topics in such a captivating way is quite amazing. He even makes concrete interesting.
Third, rather than droning on about fine sand and coarse sand, black sand and white sand, Welland relies on numerous personal anecdotes as well as short biographical sketches of some of the pioneers in sand science. His inclusion of these bits brings this potentially boring topic to life in a way that I found quite entertaining.
The 300 page book includes 49 figures and black and white photographs, 17 color plates, a lengthy bibliography and comprehensive index.
Sand is a surprisingly fascinating exploration of one of the most important substances in human history. I enjoyed it from cover to cover and if anyone is aware of a book that does a better job of making an interesting story out of a more mundane topic, I'd like to hear about it. While the world of sand still has many unexplained mysteries, the one thing I do know is that a trip to the beach will never be quite the same.
Other driftless reviews about rocks and their offspring:
Great Beasts in the Rocks
Earth: An Intimate History
I was fortunate to find this book at my local library and am happy to include it in laurashrti's National Library Week Write-Off for 2010.
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