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In Microcosm Of Sand, Geologist-Writer Evokes The Entire Universe
The word “sand”, like the words “rock” and “dirt”, is a word that is acquired very early in childhood. Sand, rock and dirt are ubiquitous materials, the building blocks of our planet. We face them early in life and life demands that we know what they are.
Perhaps the most interesting of the three for young people is sand because it is both hard and yet it can flow like water, it is hard and soft, static yet mobile. The encyclopedias say that sand is a “granular material of natural origin consisting of finely divided mineral and rock particles.” Even those who have not studied sand know that it comes in a variety of colors and in surprising degrees of granularity, ranging from the almost talcum fineness of the orange sand of the Sahara to the much grainier varieties derived from coral shredded that are so prevalent on the beaches of the world.
And now at last comes a book dedicated exclusively to sand, an extraordinary and delightful exploration of this strange corner of the mineral world. Is Sand: The Neverending Story by the British geologist Michael Welland, a masterful evocation of a basic substance of our world that is much neglected and at the same time remarkable and ubiquitous.
From individual grains observed in minute structural detail under a microscope to the vast desert dunes that form like ocean waves in stretches of the Sahara desert that can be seen from space, from the bottom of the world’s oceans to landscapes from our neighbor Mars, from billions of years in the past into a future that stretches to infinity — Sand: The Neverending Story it is an amazing narrative that encompasses the entire universe in which we live, because practically everywhere in this universe there is this matter, this sand, one of the most humble and at the same time most powerful and ubiquitous materials in nature.
Although this is a book by a professional scientist with a Ph.D. from Cambridge, the story is told with a dramatic sense of language and a narrative more reminiscent of fiction and film. Welland is a gifted writer. sand examines the science of sand, including the physics of granular materials in general, and yet always focuses on the human context of sand, sand as a material we use every day. This, in the end, is what gives meaning to sand in our human world. Intertwined with stories of scientists, sculptors, navigators, the story of sand is both a story of environmental construction and a story of environmental collapse, an adventure that goes back to the beginnings of our planet as a place of solid materials but tells that it also encompasses the mundane realities of a child’s backyard sandbox today. This is because the sand surrounds us. Sand is a component of almost everything: it has made possible our computers, buildings and window glass, toothpaste, cosmetics and paper, and has played a dramatic role in human history, commerce and imagination. It is a component of concrete and is an artifact of weathering. Given enough time, the Rocky Mountains will turn to sand; in fact, the Alleghenies already have. Welland shows us that we can find the world in a grain of sand.
While he is certainly first and foremost a professional scientist, no one is more fun to listen to as a writer of narrative non-fiction than Michael Welland. He is a born narrator who could easily have become a pulp fiction writer (or the owner of a British pub!) had he not chosen the higher calling of studying rocks. His storytelling flows with the ease and grace of the best creative non-fiction, adapting many of the storytelling techniques more commonly associated with novels.
His fellow scientists have recognized the power of this book. Sand: The Neverending Story won the prestigious John Burroughs Medal in 2010 for that year’s best natural history book (an honor Welland shares with Rachel Carson, Joseph Wood Krutch, John McPhee and other natural history luminaries dating back to 1926).
Michael Welland has written an extraordinary book, perhaps even a timeless book that non-scientists can enjoy as much as professional geologists. Welland, who spent many years practicing geology in the United States, now lives in London with his wife and family, where he is managing director of Orogen, a geological consultancy he founded, and a fellow of the Geological Society .
Sand: The Neverending Story360 pages, it is available in hardcover and paperback from The University of California Press.
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