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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. 5 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. 5 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

    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.

  5. 4 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.

  6. 5 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. 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.

  8. 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🙄.

  9. 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.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ivan

    Informative and terrifying.

  11. 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".

  12. 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.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sandy

    Amazing what we are doing to the world...just another example of it.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jack

    A most excellent book filled with fascinating information about a topic I assume most of us know nothing about.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Anthony Yvonnica

    The book did a fairly decent job of showing how important sand is to our modern society and technology. But there were a few too many diversions for my taste. I do recommend this book.

  16. 5 out of 5

    William Martin

  17. 5 out of 5

    Rich Sweigard

  18. 5 out of 5

    Paul E

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

  20. 4 out of 5

    Philip Pietrowski,

  21. 5 out of 5

    Alex Fagen

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mrbillp

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

  24. 5 out of 5

    Morgan

  25. 5 out of 5

    Tre

  26. 4 out of 5

    Doug Haskin

  27. 4 out of 5

    Iain McClinton

  28. 4 out of 5

    Javi

  29. 4 out of 5

    Thefirebottle

  30. 5 out of 5

    Clara

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