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

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…