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Sand: The Never-Ending Story

Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    From individual grains to desert dunes, from the bottom of the sea to the landscapes of Mars, and from billions of years in the past to the future, this is the extraordinary story of one of nature's humblest, most powerful, and most ubiquitous materials. Told by a geologist with a novelist's sense of language and narrative,Sandexamines the science-sand forensics, the physics of granular materials, sedimentology, paleontology and archaeology, planetary exploration-and at the same time explores the rich human context of sand. Interwoven with tales of artists, mathematicians, explorers, and even a vampire, the story of sand is an epic of environmental construction and destruction, an adventure in staggering scales of time and distance, yet a tale that encompasses the ordinary and everyday. Sand, in fact, is all around us-it has made possible our computers, buildings and windows, toothpaste, cosmetics, and paper, and it has played dramatic roles in human history, commerce, and imagination. In this luminous, kinetic, revelatory account, we do indeed find the world in a grain of sand.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94200-4
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 Individuals: Birth and Character
    (pp. 1-30)

    It was love at first sight. As the raven circled over the endless ocean, he saw a beautiful mermaid and was entranced. He flew close and asked her to marry him, and she agreed—but on one condition: “Make me some land where I can sit on a beach and dry my hair and I will marry you.” The raven knew he would need help with this task and, in return for not insignificant favors but without revealing his intentions, enlisted the seal and the frog to procure some sand from the bottom of the sea. The raven then flew...

  6. 2 Tribes: The Strange World of Granular Materials
    (pp. 31-65)

    Watch kids digging at the beach, their concentration and intimacy with their material. Scooping, scraping, molding, patting, sculpting, repairing, they are lost in the cycles of excavation, construction, and destruction. Their hands are adapted to different purposes, working both industrially and artistically. It’s not just children who enjoy playing with sand. Sitting on the beach, we adults also make patterns, furrows, and heaps, or sift it through our fingers spontaneously, subconsciously, as we talk or watch the kids. Sand, whether in its dry or wet mood, is a compelling substance, somehow seductive and sensuous. Its topography conforms warmly to ours;...

  7. 3 Sand and Imagination I: Very Large Numbers of Very Small Things
    (pp. 66-76)

    If you live or travel in the Caribbean and are of a superstitious disposition, or if you simply believe in the precautionary principle, take enough sand from the beach to make a good-sized pile outside your door. This will prevent the loogaroo from entering. The loogaroo is a vampire, most commonly a female. Each night, she rids herself of her skin, hides it under a tree, and flies off in search of blood, flames shooting from her armpits and orifices, leaving a luminous trail through the sky. She can take on different forms and gain entry through the slightest crack,...

  8. 4 Societies on the Move: A Journey to the Sea
    (pp. 77-106)

    In the time that it took you to read the epigraph above, trillions of sand grains around the world moved, taking another step on their endless journey. The Earth’s business is change, ceaseless movement and recycling, a kinetic system where everything is in constant motion, be it continents plodding along at the rate a fingernail grows, or landslides and earthquakes changing our world in an instant. Sand is a principal actor in this dynamic and never-ending performance, by virtue of its size born to be transported by gravity, rivers, waves, ocean currents, and winds, shape-shifting into ever-changing landscapes. The science...

  9. 5 Moving On: Waves, Tides, and Storms
    (pp. 107-145)

    If you had happened to be enjoying a fine day in late June 1999 by taking a walk along the beaches of Cape Hatteras, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, you would have thought that your mind was playing tricks. You might have dismissed it as an illusion of some sort and sat on the beach, keeping an eye on your dog and sifting sand grains through your fingers—any one of which might have been our sand grain resting on its journey southward after its escape from the Chesapeake. But the sensation of uneasiness would have remained, and...

  10. 6 Blowing in the Wind: Desert Landscapes
    (pp. 146-175)

    When sand moves under a gathering desert wind, it seems to take on a life of its own, to become a different form of matter—like a gas, like liquid nitrogen spilling and spreading, following the ground surface. Spraying off the crest of a dune, shimmering in the light, veils of sand race and ripple, spread and vanish, their place continually taken by the next gossamer sheet, dancing, playing, celebrating. Are these jinns, the spirits of the desert? The sight is beautiful and hypnotizing in the evening sun, but if the wind gathers speed, beauty rapidly vanishes as the violence...

  11. Color plates
    (pp. None)
  12. 7 Witness: Testaments of Sand
    (pp. 176-213)

    The girl sat on the sand by the river, sifting the grains over and over through her fingers, as three-year-olds tend to do. Her attention was divided. First, she needed to keep track of her mother, who was moving down the riverbank through the sparse trees, picking what fruit she could find. But upstream, above the hills, something fascinating was happening. A great, dark, turbulent mass of clouds had been rolling over the landscape, shot through with lightning and shaking with thunder. The sky had turned a strange earthy color in the late afternoon sun, and the ash cloud from...

  13. 8 Sand and Imagination II: Stories, Medium, and Muse
    (pp. 214-233)

    Milpatjunanyi: it’s a word that does not roll easily off Western tongues but carries that promise, common to ancient and exotic languages, of insight and discovery. All languages offer novelty and oddly satisfying demonstrations of the limitations of our own—multiple words to describe what in our language is a single color, for example—and the Pitjantjatjara language of the communities of north central Australia is no exception. Pitjantjatjara is one of the many languages of the many Aboriginal communities in the region around Uluru (Ayers Rock), a natural monument of ancient sandstone.Milpatjunanyi, in the Pitjantjatjara language, means the...

  14. 9 Servant: Sand in Our Lives
    (pp. 234-271)

    The fate of Ozymandias, the much-debated significance of Lucky’s sand-filled suitcase inWaiting for Godot, pockets full of sand, lessons made of sand—gloom, despair, and pointlessness are the messages. Sand has come to be used as a symbol of the fragile side of the human condition: foolishness, futility, worthlessness, heartache. But as we have seen in the previous chapter, sand can also be a source of inspiration and creativity. It has a complex role. In reality, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand...

  15. 10 Outward and Onward: Beyond Earth, beyond the Present
    (pp. 272-300)

    It was the early hours of December 25, 2004. In England, Christmas stockings were being surreptitiously left next to sleeping children; in the United States, Christmas Eve celebrations were still continuing. Far, far away, a bundle of spectacular technology, looking like an inverted salad bowl set in a large, upside-down patio umbrella and wrapped in gold foil, slipped quietly away from its moorings and began its final journey. Twenty-one days into that journey, as it hurtled into an increasingly dense orange-brown haze, the technology awoke, its parachute deployed, the umbrella jettisoned. And it began filming a new world.

    As the...

  16. EPILOGUE: A Desert Mystery
    (pp. 301-304)

    The treasure of Tutankhamun, the Great Sand Sea, a meteorite impact, intrepid explorers, and a father’s “desert things.” I began this book with a personal story, and I shall round it off with another, one that brings together several of its themes and inspirations.

    InLost Oasis: In Search of Paradise, Rob Twigger recounts:

    One night my son wanted to appease me because of some annoyance he had caused. “Show me your desert things,” he said. “Show me your crystals and stones.” However tired and grumpy I might be, he knew how to revive me. I unwrapped my treasure from...

    (pp. 305-322)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 323-343)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 344-344)