Friday, August 28, 2020

The World in a Grain by Vince Beiser

 Source of book: I own this.


After waiting a couple years to see if our local library system would get this book, I went ahead and bought it. Sadly, library budgets have been chronically low in our county, and quality-of-life spending has never been a priority here. (We prefer to overfund our worst in the nation police forces instead...but that’s a separate blog post.) 

Anyway, The World in a Grain is all about sand - it essentially takes the chapters on concrete and glass in Mark Miowdonik’s book Stuff Matters, and focuses on the raw material necessary for producing them. I love this sort of stuff, as do a few of my kids, so we got some mileage out of the book. 


Beiser looks at concrete and glass, of course, but also at the ultra-pure silicon that powers our technology, the use of sand in fracking, beach replenishment, island building, desertification, and more. Most sobering is the account of the environmental consequences of our need for sand, and the way that we are running out of readily accessible sand of the right kinds. The book isn’t alarmist, but it is realistic - in general, we (particularly wealthy nations) need to cut back significantly on our use of resources. 


There is no point in trying to summarize the book beyond that. It is fairly typical in its genre: well researched documentation combine with compelling storytelling to make an interesting and informative read that isn’t too technical for the layperson. 


There are a few fun bits to quote in here. First is his title, which he takes from William Blake’s poem, “Auguries of Innocence,” which begins thus:


To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour.


I considered quoting about a page and a half of the first chapter, which lays out just how crucial sand products are to our modern way of life - but it really is too long to type out. It is a tour-de-force, however, and worth reading just for that. 


One particular chapter was fascinating and informative - I learned something I hadn’t known before. Michael Owens, founder of the Toledo-Owens Glass Sand Company, is credited with a key role in eliminating child labor in the US, even though he actually worked as a child worker and didn’t see a moral problem with it. However, his invention of machines to handle the repetitive labor involved in making glass bottles, which led to less demand for children in the workforce - and also made the unions decide to oppose child labor as children undercut the wages of their membership. It is rather fascinating. Technology has never been a completely unmixed blessing, of course, but by automating the dangerous and repetitive tasks typically given to low wage workers (often children, women, and racial minorities), real progress in worker safety was made. 


There is so much more in this book, of course, from Dubai to Shanghai, and I can recommend it for both adults and young people who are looking for adult-level popular science books. 


No comments:

Post a Comment