Prof­itable Won­ders

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - James Le Fanu

Mod­ern civil­i­sa­tion, seem­ingly para­dox­i­cally, is built on sand – the small­est, hum­blest form of inan­i­mate mat­ter per­haps but, none­the­less, in­dis­pens­able to our highly ur­banised and in­ter­con­nected world.

And in­creas­ingly so, when the num­ber of megac­i­ties with a pop­u­la­tion in ex­cess of ten mil­lion has more than dou­bled in less than 25 years. Their tow­er­ing ed­i­fices of glass and con­crete are made of sand, as are their roads, bridges, tun­nels and the in­for­ma­tion high­way of the in­ter­net on which our lives have be­come so ut­terly de­pen­dent.

It all started around four bil­lion years ago when a crust of ig­neous rock crys­tallised out of the molten in­te­rior of the young Earth. Jacked up and crum­pled by the col­li­sion of the tec­tonic plates on which it rested, that crust would be­come the moun­tain ranges of the Alps and Hi­malayas, fash­ioned pre­dom­i­nantly of the min­eral quartz, com­posed of that most abun­dant of el­e­ments, sil­ica.

Quartz is very hard but, over aeons, the com­bined as­sault of wind, ice, rain and sim­i­lar ‘weathering’ forces lib­er­ated mi­nus­cule grains of sil­ica from those moun­tain peaks that, car­ried down­wards by the force of grav­ity, would be de­posited as pris­tine sparkling sand on beaches and river beds.

And there it re­mained undis­turbed un­til, in the third cen­tury BC, Ro­man engi­neers dis­cov­ered that mix­ing three parts sand with one part wa­ter and ce­ment pro­duced the gloopy grey ma­te­rial, con­crete, that could be fash­ioned into mon­u­men­tal ed­i­fices of ar­ti­fi­cial stone. The Colos­seum, the largest am­phithe­atre ever built, could hold a ca­pac­ity crowd of 60,000 spec­ta­tors. Tra­jan’s baths oc­cu­pied ten acres of prime real es­tate in the cen­tre of Rome. And the Pan­theon, with a roof span of 142ft, re­mains the world’s largest un­re­in­forced con­crete dome.

Ev­ery city of the em­pire had a sim­i­lar stan­dard reper­tory of im­pres­sive pub­lic

build­ings – tem­ples, law courts, baths, li­braries and ar­caded shops – only made pos­si­ble by con­crete.

We are in­debted to the Ro­mans, too, for re­al­is­ing the po­ten­tial of the fur­ther as­ton­ish­ing and in­dis­pens­able prop­erty of sand – that, when heated, those atoms of sil­ica re­ar­range them­selves and meld to­gether to form trans­par­ent glass.

The ori­gins of glass stretch much fur­ther back; an ac­ci­den­tal dis­cov­ery made no doubt many times from ob­serv­ing beads of glass formed in the em­bers of beach fires. But some time in the first cen­tury BC, two tech­niques rev­o­lu­tionised the prospects of what glass might do.

The first, ‘cast­ing’, pro­duced flat sheets of win­dow glass that, by let­ting the light in while keep­ing out the rain and cold, im­proved im­mea­sur­ably the homes of those who could af­ford it.

The sec­ond – ‘glass-blow­ing’ down a long metal tube – in­flated a bub­ble of molten sand at its tip that, im­pressed into moulds, could cre­ate hy­gienic, non-por­ous, fluid-con­tain­ing jugs, jars, bot­tles and drink­ing glasses of ev­ery con­ceiv­able size and shape.

The fur­ther unique prop­erty of glass – mag­ni­fi­ca­tion – would, in the form of tele­scope and mi­cro­scope, in­au­gu­rate the sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion ex­pand­ing hu­man in­tel­lec­tual hori­zons to en­com­pass the two ex­tremes of scale. In 1609, Galileo turned his tele­scope to the heav­ens and dis­cov­ered the vast­ness of the uni­verse – the Milky Way, a ‘con­gery of in­nu­mer­able stars grouped to­gether in clus­ters’, too small and dis­tant to be vis­i­ble to the naked eye.

Soon after, Robert Hooke’s mi­cro­scopic ex­am­i­na­tion of a flea was the first in­ti­ma­tion of the in­tri­cate anatom­i­cal de­tails of even the most mi­nus­cule forms of life, with its ‘pol­ish’d sheet of ar­mour neatly joined’ and ‘the cu­ri­ous con­trivance’ of its pow­er­ful limbs.

The pro­found­est con­se­quence of the at­tributes of sand for our lives is also the most re­cent, ini­ti­ated in 1971 by the pro­duc­tion of the first com­puter chip – an in­te­grated cir­cuit link­ing to­gether 2,250 elec­tronic tran­sis­tors on a wafer­thin slice of sil­i­con; that num­ber now runs to bil­lions.

For rea­sons that lie far be­yond any pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion, the grains of pure sil­i­con cre­ated in the molten in­te­rior of that young Earth all those bil­lions of years ago pos­sess the ideal prop­er­ties – as ‘semi-con­duc­tors’ of elec­tric­ity – for these mir­a­cles of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy that, on the in­ter­net and our mo­bile phones, trans­mit 2.5 quin­til­lion bytes of data ev­ery day. Their trans­for­ma­tive in­flu­ence on al­most ev­ery as­pect of our ex­is­tence re­quires no elab­o­ra­tion.

Thus – in one way or an­other and to para­phrase Wil­liam Blake – we can in­deed ‘see a world (our world) in a grain of sand’.

Em­pire-build­ing from grains of sand

‘You said it again – “My smother” ’

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