Skip to main content

Sand – Michael Welland ****

I don’t know who the commissioning editor for this book was, but I want this person on my side. Imagine, going into a commissioning meeting saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got this proposal for a great book.’ ‘Really, what’s it about?’ ‘Erm, sand.’ And yet still (s)he managed to sell it. And that’s a good thing – because Michael Welland’s book is fascinating.
This is much more than a book about what sand is – though that’s covered in considerable depth – it’s about its physical nature, how it is made, how human beings have responded to it and much more. We plunge into the detail of a single sand grain and zoom out to take in vast deserts. Two chapters are titled ‘Sand and the Imagination’ and chronicle how sand has influenced our thinking, from Archimedes’ The Sand Reckoner to art and literature inspired by sand. This is sand for the sand enthusiast – but also sand for anyone who has sat on a beach and built sandcastles, or let dry sand drift through their fingers.
I am giving this book four stars because it’s well written, makes an apparently dull subject interesting and goes places you really wouldn’t imagine. But I do have one big problem with it. It’s not Welland’s writing. That’s just occasionally a touch flowery, but generally good. No, it’s the psychological impact of the topic.
The fact is, this book sat on my review shelf for months. I kept picking it up and looking at it – it’s a handsome book with a good heft – then putting it back on the shelf. I really couldn’t be bothered to read about sand. Even more surprising was my reaction once I started reading it. This took place over several days – it’s a fairly substantial book. Every time I came back to it, I tried to read something else instead. I just didn’t want to read about sand. When I forced myself to open it, I was quickly engrossed again. But the same would then happen again next time I was thinking of picking it up – I genuinely tried not to read it, over and over again.
This might just be a peculiarity I have – but if it’s not I do need to provide a health warning. Yes, it’s a good, readable book, but you might have trouble making yourself read it.
Paperback:  
Also in hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…