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

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide - Jim Bell **

Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.

The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad –  not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…