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” ’