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The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization

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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 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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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 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.

30 review for The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization

  1. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    Ah sand. Who would have thought it could be the subject of such an interesting book? The exploitation of sand as a resource has been going on for a very long time but about 75 years ago with the boom in construction and the world’s population growth oriented towards cities the needle started to shift towards the unsustainable. Specifically the growth and urbanization of China, with more than 100 cities of more than a million people, in twenty years has equaled the use of concrete in the previous Ah sand. Who would have thought it could be the subject of such an interesting book? The exploitation of sand as a resource has been going on for a very long time but about 75 years ago with the boom in construction and the world’s population growth oriented towards cities the needle started to shift towards the unsustainable. Specifically the growth and urbanization of China, with more than 100 cities of more than a million people, in twenty years has equaled the use of concrete in the previous hundred years in the United States, accelerating the problem. I don’t know if I’ll be thinking of this book much a year from now as many science books have very interesting material that goes in my good ear rattles around for a few weeks and then exits the other ear. But if we run out of the high grade sands in my lifetime without some scientifically feasible alternative to replace them, then I’ll most certainly recall this canary in the coal mine of a book. So back to the book, it is well researched and well written and intended for lay people on a topic that is partly distressing while being mostly fascinating. The book is broken down into eleven largely independent chapters. Each chapter corresponds to a different industry use for sand, why we are running out and the environmental effects on the earth of overconsumption. There are many different types of sand and many applications require very particular sand. The areas covered include cement as in highways, cement for urban construction, glass, integrated circuits, coastal beach replenishment, island building in Dubai and the south China Sea, destruction of ocean bottoms near coastal regions to mine for sand, destruction of river beds to mine for sand and so on. Much more nuanced than I would have guessed as there are many positives that all of the aforementioned industries have provided society. The book finishes with a warning on overconsumption. Probably the best 2018 science book that I’ve read as of September.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    As if there isn't enough to worry about with the over population of the world...just wait until you delve through this one which is a real eye-opener on just what humans (the most invasive species of all) are doing to our planet. Sand is the 3rd most used natural resource after water and air and is in everything you have around you from your phone, your shampoo, toothpaste, the foundation of your house, the road you drive on and the paint on your walls-to name just a few; and the world is using As if there isn't enough to worry about with the over population of the world...just wait until you delve through this one which is a real eye-opener on just what humans (the most invasive species of all) are doing to our planet. Sand is the 3rd most used natural resource after water and air and is in everything you have around you from your phone, your shampoo, toothpaste, the foundation of your house, the road you drive on and the paint on your walls-to name just a few; and the world is using it up at an alarming rate. I know you are thinking we would never use up all the sand in the world...well, think again because desert sands can't be used (read the book to learn why) so that leaves ocean floors and river beds that are being decimated and all the wildlife and coral reefs right along with them. Dubai is building palm shaped islands off its coast made out of sand and China is the world's largest asphalt consumer. There is a highway linking Beijing with Hong Kong that is a full 50 lanes wide! This book is a well written horror story...except it's non-fiction and if the world doesn't wake up to what humans are doing to it...just picture that hour glass filled with sand....when it's empty.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Karen Fierman

    This is THE best nonfiction book I've read in a LONG time! I'm a person who's not very interested in things science/nature/technology, so it was rather a fluke that I even read it in the first place, let alone LOVED it. For starters, it's just the right length—255 pages ... with the perfect amount of information, but not TMI. The information/facts/data/stats are ALL fascinating, gripping, and mind-boggling. I was sitting on the proverbial edge of my seat reading this book, as if it was a thrille This is THE best nonfiction book I've read in a LONG time! I'm a person who's not very interested in things science/nature/technology, so it was rather a fluke that I even read it in the first place, let alone LOVED it. For starters, it's just the right length—255 pages ... with the perfect amount of information, but not TMI. The information/facts/data/stats are ALL fascinating, gripping, and mind-boggling. I was sitting on the proverbial edge of my seat reading this book, as if it was a thriller! Sand. SAND? A subject of consummate importance and deep source of delight? YES, seriously! There was never a dull moment to the very last grain. The WRITING flows, and there's even much good humor sprinkled throughout. I've gained a new and surprising understanding of the astonishing world of sand. If I sound hyberbolical in this review, so be it, because this book cannot be praised enough. And trust me when I say that you really, really NEED to KNOW about sand!!! OMG! Who knew? Not I.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Agnieszka Suliga

    Captivating, so many unknown facts presented! As a material scientist I've always known that sand is a fascinating material, but this book is so much more, it's just such a treat from an engineering/scientific/political and environmental point of view that it's definitely worth your time!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Rani

    Vince Beiser is a great writer and a brilliant researcher. I never expected that learning about sand could be so interesting. The book delves into the history of sand, how our civilization has come to rely on it, the negative ramifications of sand mining and how this finite natural resource is running out. It's frightening in some ways, but fascinating, and Beiser does a great job at laying it all out.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Gendou

    This book beings with a tale of murder. Specifically, the alleged murder of a police informant at the hands of a black market sand mafia in India. Yeah, black market sand is apparently a thing! The book describes all the many uses for sand e.g. roads and buildings (concrete), electronics (silicon wafers), glass (duh), fracking fluid, and even island building. The biggest value I got out of the book was this history of material science. It also talks about the downsides of sand mining e.g. toxic du This book beings with a tale of murder. Specifically, the alleged murder of a police informant at the hands of a black market sand mafia in India. Yeah, black market sand is apparently a thing! The book describes all the many uses for sand e.g. roads and buildings (concrete), electronics (silicon wafers), glass (duh), fracking fluid, and even island building. The biggest value I got out of the book was this history of material science. It also talks about the downsides of sand mining e.g. toxic dust (silicosis), habitat destruction, resource depletion, and, yes, the sand mafia. Some of these environmental arguments bordered on the woo-woo and seem to have been reprinted by the author with inadequate consideration for their validity. Overall I'd say Vince Beiser does a good job relaying the technical and scientific concepts. But he falls into the trap of false balance once or twice in this book.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Randall Wallace

    I read in an article the world is running out of sand because of unending concrete, glass and asphalt demand, so I read this book. Sand is made of loose grains a little larger than the width of a human hair. While some beaches have sand made of decomposed shells, 70% of sand is made of quartz. Quartz is a form of silica. Singapore, is the world’s largest sand importer. Sand theft is common; sand is even being stolen from the sea floor. Concrete is a mix of “about 75% aggregate, 15% water, and 10 I read in an article the world is running out of sand because of unending concrete, glass and asphalt demand, so I read this book. Sand is made of loose grains a little larger than the width of a human hair. While some beaches have sand made of decomposed shells, 70% of sand is made of quartz. Quartz is a form of silica. Singapore, is the world’s largest sand importer. Sand theft is common; sand is even being stolen from the sea floor. Concrete is a mix of “about 75% aggregate, 15% water, and 10% cement, in which the cement binds to the aggregate”. The Romans were masters of concrete and when they stopped making it, no new concrete structures appeared “for more than a thousand years”. The best cement today is an old favorite, Portland Cement which constitutes 95% of the U.S. market. Concrete got reinforced with iron and steel because of concrete’s really poor tensile strength (doesn’t bend, but shatters). Asphalt got its start because horse manure and urine in the 1800’s got stuck in the joints of the brick and stone creating a health problem. Asphalt “didn’t soak up urine from the endless parade of horses that were the primary form of transport at the time.” Quick Quiz: What’s the difference between asphalt and concrete? It’s in the binding agent: “In concrete, its cement. In asphalt pavement, it’s bitumen.” Lewis Mumford sadly noted in the 50’s, the new highways “obliterate the towns they pass through.” Whole neighborhoods were bulldozed and/or “suddenly isolated”. “The average driver now puts 14,000 miles on his car each year – a 40 percent increase just since 1980.” Beiser does not mention the massive concrete/asphalt cost of building of Suburbia in the 50’s (counterproductively keeping people away from both their jobs and their food source). Quick Quiz #2: Why does clear glass look green from the side? Because iron is the most common impurity in sand. You need the finest purest sand if you are working in high tech to form the most complicated man-made objects, and that is called Iota 8. A ton of Iota 8 is $10,000 while construction sand is “a few dollars a ton.” Salacious Southern California beach fact: “topless men were still being arrested as late as 1929.” Sadly, desert sand won’t work at all for either concrete or land reclamation because “The grains are too rounded to lock together strongly.” This means with increasing desertification, we are creating sands we don’t need, while running out of the sand we need. Europe has 35 cities with over a million people. Amateurs! China has “more than 220 cities with over one million inhabitants.” That took a lot of sand. Type “ghost cities in China” on Google - If you watch the videos on Chinese Ghost Cities (like ABC News), you will be amazed such empty spaces exist. All made of sand…

  8. 5 out of 5

    David Dunlap

    Fascinating view of the various ways sand has been -- and continues to be -- a vital part of the development of civilization. The author lays out some of the important uses to which sand has been applied in our daily lives: in the making of concrete and asphalt for our buildings and roads, in the glass industry, in high-tech devices so many of us carry in our pockets, in land reclamation and beach nourishment. A more recent use for sand: fracking for natural gas and oil. Along the way, he produc Fascinating view of the various ways sand has been -- and continues to be -- a vital part of the development of civilization. The author lays out some of the important uses to which sand has been applied in our daily lives: in the making of concrete and asphalt for our buildings and roads, in the glass industry, in high-tech devices so many of us carry in our pockets, in land reclamation and beach nourishment. A more recent use for sand: fracking for natural gas and oil. Along the way, he produces a startling array of statistics and insights: in 1904, for example, there were merely 141 miles of paved roads (not including city streets); half of the world's population lives within 62 miles of a coastline. The author carefully points out the implications of these many aspects and interlocking relationships for the use of sand and indicates a coming shortage; the impacts on climate and life are underlined. He also points out the darker underbelly of the sand trade: poor or nonexistent regulations (especially in the light of little medical evidence for the possible health implications of those living near sand mines), black market trading in sand, etc. Then, too, there are the ironies: real estate developments along coastlines, especially in the United States, has altered tides and flow of sand into river basins, necessitating the importation of sand from other locations to replenish beaches. -- Quite engrossing, even staggering at times. In the interest of full disclosure: The book got off to a rather slow start for me (which is perhaps why I 'docked' it a star!), but I am glad I persevered to the end.

  9. 4 out of 5

    ⋟Kimari⋞

    You might also enjoy: ✱ The Disappearing Spoon ✱ Concrete Planet ✱ A Grain of Sand: Nature's Secret Wonder ✱ The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places ✱ Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World ✱ Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us ✱ Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River ✱ The Secret Knowledge of Water ✱ The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us ✱ The Works: Anatomy of a City ✱ Salt ✱ Sugar: A Bittersweet History

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

    Pretty interesting point of view and some interesting information about sand. Much of the focus is on concrete sand because this is the number one use of sand in the world. Beiser did good research and seems to have hit many of the major issues surrounding sand, sand mining, and the world's sand reserve. At times this was balanced, but other times he seemed hyperbolic, particularly the last chapter which I think should have been scrapped and rewritten (he is contradictory, where he'll warn that Pretty interesting point of view and some interesting information about sand. Much of the focus is on concrete sand because this is the number one use of sand in the world. Beiser did good research and seems to have hit many of the major issues surrounding sand, sand mining, and the world's sand reserve. At times this was balanced, but other times he seemed hyperbolic, particularly the last chapter which I think should have been scrapped and rewritten (he is contradictory, where he'll warn that we're running out of sand and we need to change our lifestyle to avoid this, but also saying there's plenty of sand it will just cost more money to mine it because it is farther from its end-use point and more costly to expose - this latter point is actually closer to the truth, but creating a huge problem and telling of its dire consequences sells books, as opposed to the somewhat more benign truth). Overall worth the read for insight into the subject, I'm just not as convinced of his conclusions.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sheri S.

    Sand, sand, sand...there's a lot of it, but apparently not enough! The world's sand supply is being used at such a great rate that people are literally dying as they seek to protect it. I learned A LOT about sand from reading this book, i.e. that there are different kinds of sand, it is used in all kinds of technological devices, beach sand it being stolen and alternatives to sand must be found. The importation of sand is being used to increase different countries coastlines and China is using s Sand, sand, sand...there's a lot of it, but apparently not enough! The world's sand supply is being used at such a great rate that people are literally dying as they seek to protect it. I learned A LOT about sand from reading this book, i.e. that there are different kinds of sand, it is used in all kinds of technological devices, beach sand it being stolen and alternatives to sand must be found. The importation of sand is being used to increase different countries coastlines and China is using sand to make islands where they can set up military outposts. Regulations regarding the preservation of sand were slow in their creation and, in some countries, regulations are ignored because of the amount of money generated from sand. Interesting discussions about the health hazards of sand mines and the deterioration of roadways, bridges and dams as they relate to sand were also addressed in this book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Chrismcginn

    Who knew? That phrase was included in two of the jacket quotes and it sums up my thoughts as well. This book is both fascinating and at times disturbing. I had never really thought about all the ways sand is literally the foundation of modern life from the roads we drive on, the buildings we live in, the glass we look through, the screens and processors that run our devices and even more. Every chapter had eye opening information and led to questions about our world and how we use all of our res Who knew? That phrase was included in two of the jacket quotes and it sums up my thoughts as well. This book is both fascinating and at times disturbing. I had never really thought about all the ways sand is literally the foundation of modern life from the roads we drive on, the buildings we live in, the glass we look through, the screens and processors that run our devices and even more. Every chapter had eye opening information and led to questions about our world and how we use all of our resources because if we can literally run out of usable sand maybe we need to think about things more.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Kenneth

    Like most Americans, I had no idea how thoroughly modern civilization depends on this humble substance, or that we're using the stuff up at an unsustainable rate—until I read this lively, entertaining, and superbly-reported book. Yes, Beiser is asking us to swallow yet another inconvenient truth about our pillaging of the planet. But he sweetens the medicine with vivid characters, fascinating scenes (from the illicit sand mines of India to the concrete "ghost cities" of China to the doomed beach Like most Americans, I had no idea how thoroughly modern civilization depends on this humble substance, or that we're using the stuff up at an unsustainable rate—until I read this lively, entertaining, and superbly-reported book. Yes, Beiser is asking us to swallow yet another inconvenient truth about our pillaging of the planet. But he sweetens the medicine with vivid characters, fascinating scenes (from the illicit sand mines of India to the concrete "ghost cities" of China to the doomed beaches of Florida), and wow-inducing factoids on every page. I found myself staying up late each night to finish the next chapter, which is pretty surprising for a treatise on ground-up rocks.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Phil JP

    We have lots of sand on earth, but only a fraction of it is usable for human purpose. i.e: limited resource. This book is very interesting and dives into a subject not many people stop and think about: Sand. Sand is present everywhere and is in our modern lives in more ways than you think. We learn about its history, uses, and effect on society on macro and personal level (the good and the bad). Listened to the audiobook and had no complaints with it. Well researched, well written for the lay perso We have lots of sand on earth, but only a fraction of it is usable for human purpose. i.e: limited resource. This book is very interesting and dives into a subject not many people stop and think about: Sand. Sand is present everywhere and is in our modern lives in more ways than you think. We learn about its history, uses, and effect on society on macro and personal level (the good and the bad). Listened to the audiobook and had no complaints with it. Well researched, well written for the lay person.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Betsy Mills

    Sand just got a lot more interesting. Who knew that sand was such a highly coveted commodity and that in many places around the world gangs of sand thieves wreak havoc on the environment and society? The rise of cities, driving culture, and our love of electronic devices is driving the demand for sand, and the pace of the demand just keeps accelerating even as supplies are diminishing. One day we will run out of usable sand - what will we do then? Convincing evidence that we need to do a better Sand just got a lot more interesting. Who knew that sand was such a highly coveted commodity and that in many places around the world gangs of sand thieves wreak havoc on the environment and society? The rise of cities, driving culture, and our love of electronic devices is driving the demand for sand, and the pace of the demand just keeps accelerating even as supplies are diminishing. One day we will run out of usable sand - what will we do then? Convincing evidence that we need to do a better job of protecting this valuable resource while we still can.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Harini Dedhia

    A great primer to get us started on thinking about the commodity we all take for granted- sand. Right from the critical use of the commodity to the development of various sand mafia groups across the globe, the book does a great job in highlighting the dangers of running out of sand. There were a few areas where the narrative seems to go off-track but nonetheless this book warrants a read for highlighting the audacious consumption of sand taking place in the modern world.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jen

    Fascinating. I learned a lot about the history and economics of glass, concrete, fracking, beaches, and man made land throughout this book. However, I am now completely stressed about sand mining- it’s environmental impact and dwindling reserves of the “right” type of sand. I’ve got to go back to fiction now. With the climate change reports, this book, the Supreme Court, and family separation, I need an escape from reality🙄.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    Excellent, enlightening, and worrisome look at our dependence on sand for nearly every element of our modern lives, and the alarming fact that the sand is, believe it or not, actually running out. There is a black market in sand, and as Mr. Beiser reveals, "At least seventy people were murdered in violence related to illegal sand mining" since 2014. Surprised? Read this book!

  19. 5 out of 5

    Shawn

    fun book that goes into the harvesting of sand, the different qualities of sand and their usage. found out that its a valuable rescource that mafia people fight over. concrete and glass all are made with sand and especially with concrete, its using up alot of the sand reserves, which leads to the loss of beaches.

  20. 5 out of 5

    gillian alessio

    This is a book every school aged child and every politician should read. It's an well researched and very well written book about, what I believed, was the most mundane of subjects. Sand is integral to our lives here on planet earth and we are carelessly with wonton disregard throwing away our future on this little blue marble. Please read this book.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl

    4.5! Sand? Who knew? So many interesting and mind boggling facts about this substance that is part of our history and the main ingredient in all we do now. Glass, concrete, pavement, computers, smart phones and on and on. Very cool.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    So interesting! A captivating read that never seemed dry or boring. He's a great writer who enlightens us of the myriad reasons sand is unique, important, diverse and a critical element in science & industry & technology.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ford

    I learned more about sand and how it influences our way of life. I never heard of sand mining and how it wrenching so many ecosystems. It books explains why the coast of concrete keeps going up and up.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Tracey

    Who would have thought a book about sand could be so interesting?! This book is a fascinating piece of narrative nonfiction, and the word "gripping" used in the Goodreads anno is not an exaggeration. It would even be useful in a high school class unit on Earth's resources.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Ivan

    Informative and terrifying.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Susan Reed

    Fascinating information. Who knew? Or thinks about? Very well written.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    As if I need another crisis to worry about in the world. Sand?! Really?! Super enlightening though and an interesting read. I now know way too much about sand.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Paulina

    Very interesting, well-written book. But as for me I'd be even more contented if there was a lot more about the future of sand and its "substitutes".

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

    I really didn't think a book about sand would be excessively interesting, but I honestly found this riveting.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    Listened to this on audio. The narrator, Will Damron, was fantastic. So it's definitely worth listening to if you like listening to nonfiction.

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