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The World in a Grain
Cover of The World in a Grain
The World in a Grain
The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization
Borrow Borrow
A finalist for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
The gripping story of the most important overlooked commodity in the world—sand—and the crucial role it plays in our lives.
After water and air, sand is the natural resource that we consume more than any other—even more than oil. Every concrete building and paved road on Earth, every computer screen and silicon chip, is made from sand. From Egypt's pyramids to the Hubble telescope, from the world's tallest skyscraper to the sidewalk below it, from Chartres' stained-glass windows to your iPhone, sand shelters us, empowers us, engages us, and inspires us. It's the ingredient that makes possible our cities, our science, our lives—and our future.
And, incredibly, we're running out of it.
The World in a Grain is the compelling true story of the hugely important and diminishing natural resource that grows more essential every day, and of the people who mine it, sell it, build with it—and sometimes, even kill for it. It's also a provocative examination of the serious human and environmental costs incurred by our dependence on sand, which has received little public attention. Not all sand is created equal: Some of the easiest sand to get to is the least useful. Award-winning journalist Vince Beiser delves deep into this world, taking readers on a journey across the globe, from the United States to remote corners of India, China, and Dubai to explain why sand is so crucial to modern life. Along the way, readers encounter world-changing innovators, island-building entrepreneurs, desert fighters, and murderous sand pirates. The result is an entertaining and eye-opening work, one that is both unexpected and involving, rippling with fascinating detail and filled with surprising characters.
A finalist for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
The gripping story of the most important overlooked commodity in the world—sand—and the crucial role it plays in our lives.
After water and air, sand is the natural resource that we consume more than any other—even more than oil. Every concrete building and paved road on Earth, every computer screen and silicon chip, is made from sand. From Egypt's pyramids to the Hubble telescope, from the world's tallest skyscraper to the sidewalk below it, from Chartres' stained-glass windows to your iPhone, sand shelters us, empowers us, engages us, and inspires us. It's the ingredient that makes possible our cities, our science, our lives—and our future.
And, incredibly, we're running out of it.
The World in a Grain is the compelling true story of the hugely important and diminishing natural resource that grows more essential every day, and of the people who mine it, sell it, build with it—and sometimes, even kill for it. It's also a provocative examination of the serious human and environmental costs incurred by our dependence on sand, which has received little public attention. Not all sand is created equal: Some of the easiest sand to get to is the least useful. Award-winning journalist Vince Beiser delves deep into this world, taking readers on a journey across the globe, from the United States to remote corners of India, China, and Dubai to explain why sand is so crucial to modern life. Along the way, readers encounter world-changing innovators, island-building entrepreneurs, desert fighters, and murderous sand pirates. The result is an entertaining and eye-opening work, one that is both unexpected and involving, rippling with fascinating detail and filled with surprising characters.
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  • From the book Chapter 1

    The Most Important Solid Substance on Earth

    This book is about something most of us barely ever think about and yet can't live without. It is about the most important solid substance on Earth, the literal foundation of modern civilization.

    It is about sand.

    Sand? Why is this humblest of materials, something that seems as trivial as it is ubiquitous, so significant?

    Because sand is the main material that modern cities are made of. It is to cities what flour is to bread, what cells are to our bodies: the invisible but fundamental ingredient that makes up the bulk of the built environment in which most of us live.

    Sand is at the core of our daily lives. Look around you right now. Is there a floor beneath you, walls around, a roof overhead? Chances are excellent they are made at least partly out of concrete. And what is concrete? It's essentially just sand and gravel glued together with cement.

    Take a glance out the window. All those other buildings you see are also made from sand. So is the glass in that window. So are the miles of asphalt roads that connect all those buildings. So are the silicon chips that are the brains of your laptop and smartphone. If you're in downtown San Francisco, in lakefront Chicago, or at Hong Kong's international airport, the very ground beneath you is likely artificial, manufactured with sand dredged up from underwater. We humans bind together countless trillions of grains of sand to build towering structures, and we break apart the molecules of individual grains to make tiny computer chips.

    Some of America's greatest fortunes were built on sand. Henry J. Kaiser, one of the wealthiest and most powerful industrialists of twentieth-century America, got his start selling sand and gravel to road builders in the Pacific Northwest. Henry Crown, a billionaire who once owned the Empire State Building, began his own empire with sand dredged from Lake Michigan that he sold to developers building Chicago's skyscrapers. Today the construction industry worldwide consumes some $130 billion worth of sand each year.

    Sand lies deep in our cultural consciousness. It suffuses our language. We draw lines in it, build castles in it, hide our heads in it. In medieval Europe (and a classic Metallica song), the Sandman helped ease us into sleep. In our modern mythologies, the Sandman is a DC superhero and a Marvel supervillain. In the creation myths of indigenous cultures from West Africa to North America, sand is portrayed as the element that gives birth to the land. Buddhist monks and Navajo artisans have painted with it for centuries. "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives," intone the opening credits of a classic American soap opera. William Blake encouraged us to "see a world in a grain of sand." Percy Bysshe Shelley reminded us that even the mightiest of kings end up dead and forgotten, while around them only "the lone and level sands stretch far away." Sand is both minuscule and infinite, a means of measurement and a substance beyond measuring.

    Sand has been important to us for centuries, even millennia. People have used it for construction since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. In the fifteenth century, an Italian artisan figured out how to turn sand into fully transparent glass, which made possible the microscopes, telescopes, and other technologies that helped drive the Renaissance's scientific revolution.

    But it was only with the advent of the modern industrialized world, in the decades just before and after the turn of the twentieth century, that people really began to harness the full potential of sand and begin making use of it on a...
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    May 21, 2018
    What does sand—the humble stuff of beaches and dunes—have to do with the making of the contemporary world? Quite a lot, actually, says journalist Beiser. He argues that sand, with its extraordinary range of properties, including durability and pliancy, is “the most important solid substance on earth... that makes modern life possible.” Sand is the key ingredient in concrete buildings and highways; in the form of glass, it is “the thing that lets us see everything” through windows, microscope lenses, eyeglasses, and smartphone screens. But due to the explosion in its uses and the increasing number and size of cities, sand is running out: the book is at its urgent best in chapters on the black market in sand and the sand mafias that brutally exercise control over resources in places like Raipur Khadar, a farming village south of New Delhi, whose ecosystem has been plundered by the demand for sand. The flip side of the story of modern life is, of course, the story of ecological devastation: Beiser moves from the denuded beaches of St. Vincent, in the Caribbean, to the replanted deserts of Inner Mongolia, showing the true cost of the “sand wars.” Breezily written and with insights on every page, this is an eye-opening look at a resource too often taken for granted. Agent: Lisa Bankoff, ICM.

  • Kirkus

    June 1, 2018
    A fresh history of "the most important solid substance on Earth, the literal foundation of modern civilization."Books on a single, familiar topic (salt, cod, etc.) have an eager audience, and readers will find this an entirely satisfying addition to the genre. In his first book, journalist Beiser, whose work has appeared in Wired, Mother Jones, and elsewhere, has done his homework, and he delivers often surprising information about sand's role from low tech to high (construction, glass, electronics) without neglecting the painful consequences of its skyrocketing production over the past century, which has made it a source of serious environmental damage. Next to air and water, humans use more sand (largely silica, silicon dioxide) than any material, mostly to make concrete for buildings and roads. Desert sand isn't suitable, writes the author, so "riverbeds and beaches around the world are being stripped bare of their precious grains. Farmlands and forests are being torn up. And people are being imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. All over sand." Of course, it takes sand to make glass, which was not cheap until after 1900, when machines put an army of glassmakers out of work, and bottles and picture windows became routine consumer products. Far less--but far more purified--sand becomes silicon chips and similar high-tech essentials. Beiser devotes the second half of the book to the process of moving sand from place to place. The iconic beaches we take for granted are often artificial creations, eroding steadily, supporting a massive, multibillion-dollar, government-subsidized industry to truck in sand. An area the size of Connecticut has been reclaimed from the sea for airports, homes, or luxury resorts by vacuuming sand from the sea bottom or importing it, often illegally, from the beaches and land of poor countries.A successful if disturbing argument that there is more to sand than meets the eye.

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    June 15, 2018

    Journalist Beiser presents a fascinating take on the importance of sand, perhaps the most common material on Earth that possesses the unique ability to transform the world in myriad ways. Sand is the key ingredient in the concrete buildings we live and work in, the asphalt roads we drive on, and the mobile phones on which we rely. Specifically, Beiser argues that the rise of the U.S. automobile was facilitated by the growth of its road system, of which sand is a major component. Our dependence on cars is now a worldwide phenomenon, and new roads are being built continually with this natural resource. Unfortunately, the most useful sand comes from environmentally sensitive areas, and the scarcity of a suitable composition has become so dire that criminal organizations worldwide steal the mineral, often putting lives at risk in their pursuit. Another troubling effect is the extremely harmful carbon footprint that transporting sand incurs; Beiser demonstrates how Middle Eastern countries import sand from as far afield as Australia. VERDICT Beiser is a diligent researcher, and his sources and interviews build a strong case in this entirely absorbing if troubling read to argue that the many grains of sand, often associated with abundance, are in fact, finite.--Brian Renvall, Mesalands Community Coll., Tucumcari, NM

    Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization
Vince Beiser
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