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Book Review: Sand: The Never-Ending Story by Michael Welland

Review by Sid Perkins

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Sand, despite what one character in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind claims, is more than just tiny little rocks.

Sure, around 70 percent of the 1 billion or so sand grains born around the world each second are grains of quartz — bits of plain old silicon dioxide that have eroded from rocks such as the granites that make up Earth’s mountains. But many of the rest — wave-crushed coral, broken bits of shell, even the intact remains of tiny, star-shaped marine creatures — have a biological origin, Welland writes. Intriguingly, he notes, what makes something sand is the size of its particles, not what those particles are made of.

In Sand, Welland chronicles the stories of individual sand grains — how no two are alike, how they’re used in archaeology and modern forensics, how a windblown grain becomes battered and rounded much more quickly than one carried by a river — as well as the tales of how large accumulations of sand behave, a topic of interest to everyone from golfers and sand castle sculptors to physicists and geologists.

Sand is one of Earth’s most ubiquitous and fundamental materials, so much so that in ancient times it played an integral role in the creation myths of many cultures. Today, Welland notes, sand touches nearly every life as an ingredient in products as diverse as concrete and glass, cosmetics and shampoos, pharmaceuticals and foodstuffs. Besides being both a medium and a tool in nature’s ever-changing sculptures, sand has served as an inspiration to poets and authors, and its imagery is embedded in math and art, literature and language.

There are worlds to see in a grain of sand, and a world of fascinating information in this book.

Univ. of California, 2009, 343 p., $24.95

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