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Interview with Michael Welland, Author of "Sand"

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In early 2010, author Michael Welland took the time to visit the Geology Forum and respond to questions from me and other forum members. (I review his book Sand on this page.) This interview has been slightly edited for length.

Andrew Alden: Michael Welland has had an interesting career: geologist in industry and academia, head of a consulting firm, and most recently author of the remarkable Sand: The Never-Ending Story published by University of California Press.

Michael is on a "virtual book tour." His earlier stops include the Clastic Detritus blog (review and Q&A), NOVA Geology (Q&A), and Stories in Stone (review and Q&A). There's also a 30-minute radio interview online. I point them out because I don't want to repeat anything they have already covered.

Michael, as we start I'd like to thank you for listing me among your key general sources, in particular my article "Here's Sand in Your Eye." If you think of that one little web page as a grain of sand in the great desert of the Internet, your book has expanded that grain into a whole dune. I am so grateful that you have given sand the treatment it deserves for the audience it deserves: the non-specialist public.

Tell me a little about your background. Although Sand is your first book, your skill as an author must have a long prologue in your studies and experience.

Michael Welland: I guess to go way back, I grew up in an academic (although not geological) family, and reading and writing were always important. I'm somewhat "old school" in terms of writing - I think of it as a craft, something to be practised and honed, to be learned from the great practitioners, something in which learning by mistakes is critical. That sounds a bit pompous - I have a tendency to be long-winded, and one thing that I've really enjoyed in the process of writing the book is figuring out how to write succinctly but still (I hope) tell a good story. I was also lucky - I had a great editor at the University of California Press who fundamentally help make the book work.

I've always enjoyed writing, whether academic papers or business reports, unpublished bits and pieces of fiction, but the book was a real learning experience. And writing the pieces for my blog is just a continuation of that pleasure - although, as always, I look back at stuff that I've written and immediately want to re-do things.

Oh, and yes, it was quite a long prologue - decades and decades.

To add a note of levity to the discussion, here are a couple of my early pieces of geological writing:

Once I metagabbro, walking down the street -
I asked "were you transmogrified by pressure or by heat?"

and, having suffered a kidney stone:

A geologist is not complete
Until his own stone doth concrete

Enough!

AA: You attended Cambridge at an exciting time for geology as well as culture in general, the mid and late 1960s. Did you care about sand at the time? What did you specialize in at Cambridge, and where did that lead you? Did you ever think you would write a trade non-fiction book?

I guess I'm asking, among other things, how you got so well grounded in humanities while exceeding in science?

Your remark about decades and decades reminds me of something Walt Whitman wrote. He was a successful journalist before he plunged into poetry in his forties. He wrote, "I was simmering, simmering, simmering . . . Emerson brought me to a boil." Was there something or someone that did the same for you when you set out, six years ago, to write Sand as your first book?

MW: You're absolutely right about Cambridge in the 1960s. I was an undergraduate as much of the ground-breaking work on plate tectonics was going on, and to be in that environment and know some of the people doing that work was indeed exciting and stimulating. I emerged essentially as a structural geologist with (of course) a keen interest in tectonics. When I finished as an undergraduate I felt that I needed a change and that, the British system being what it is, there were still big gaps, courses and subject areas I needed. So I went to the US for graduate school, very much enjoying the graduate course offerings (but suffering the intellectual shock of discovering that the acceptance of plate tectonics at that time was not as widespread as it was in Cambridge).

I was then asked by Alan Smith at Cambridge (of the Bullard, Everett, and Smith Atlantic reconstruction) if I would like to be one of his students initiating a research project in Greece - how could I refuse? Sand and sandstones were, of course, regular characters in the work, but never at that time a primary theme.

This had been the latest phase in a rather difficult journey. I mentioned my family - my father was a university professor of English and American literature; my mother was a frustrated scientist (science not being deemed apropriate for young women when she was young) and became a modern languages teacher. Hence, growing up, it was the "liberal arts" that were the focus and what I was good at. But I decided that I wanted to be a geologist (yes, in part from collecting fossils on vacation at Lyme Regis and so on). To my great distress, at age 12 or so, I was told that I would have to do physics, chemistry, and maths - my three worst subjects. The only reason that I overcame this hurdle was a couple of excellent teachers and the encouragement of my parents.

All through this, and then the "career" and raising a family, trying to write a popular science book was far from my mind. But writing books ran in the family, I developed an increasing admiration for those scientists who could communicate the excitement of their work (I had got to know Steve Gould a little while I was in the US), and so I guess something was, unconsciously, "simmering." I guess another influence was Richard Fortey - we had been students together and remain friends to this day; when he wrote the first of his books, The Hidden Landscape, I thought it was terrific and so I suppose this probably contributed, through his subsequent books, to the simmering.

Then, after my father died, I stepped back somewhat from consulting work and carved out some time to think about the simmering. I started writing a rather different book, one on landscape, out of which the idea for Sand emerged - and the rest, as they say, is history.

AA: Now I'm going to flatter you by comparing you to Richard Fortey and John McPhee. You mentioned both as inspirations to David Williams over at Stories in Stone.

Fortey is a long-time paleontologist whose Earth: An Intimate History is a sustained treatment of plate tectonics. It's leavened with an extraordinary number of literary allusions. The book had a narrative thread pulling it together: a trip around the world. McPhee, as you know, set an enduring standard for popular treatments of geology in the 1970s with his Annals of the Former World. His skill as a long-form journalist allowed us to share his experience on the road with some superb teachers and characters like Kenneth Deffeyes and Eldridge Moores. His book had a narrative thread, too: a trip across North America on Interstate 80.

With Sand, you must have had the devil of a time threading such a granular topic. The "never-ending story" is not a loop so much as a skein. But you did succeed in establishing some order. Tell us about how that came together.

MW: In terms of the narrative thread, yes, it was a challenge for a topic as diverse in so many ways and on so many scales as sand. The structure of the book went through any number of iterations and rethinks, but, in the end, it was scale that came to the rescue. Together with much-appreciated help from my editor (and, indeed, my agent), I developed the idea that a thread from the small scale to the large might work, given the realities and the imagery of sand in terms of scale. I also hit on the idea of anthropomorphising (at the same time being extremely circumspect about the dangers of overdoing it), and this led to the narrative of individuals - families - tribes - societies.

I was pleased (and very relieved) to find that this worked quite naturally. The one major exception, of course, is the infamous Chapter 9, on sand in our daily lives; readers either love it or hate it for its A to Z structure. I had always felt that this was an important part of the book, one that would register this natural material in the reader's mind as something that plays a surprising range of key roles in our lives. But the sheer diversity of the topic defied a narrative. I wrestled with this for some time and eventually gave up - I realise that the alphabetical "encyclopedic" approach is different from the rest of the book - but at the same time, some readers find it a refreshing change of pace.

I also enjoyed the way in which the scale thread could be continued with time (sand as a witness to the earth's past) and then beyond earth into extraterrestrial sands and beyond the present into sand in the planet's endgame.

Then, of course, there was the idea of a couple of "narrative breaks" - the two chapters on sand in our imagination.

All-in-all, figuring out a structure that could work was probably the most challenging part of the whole process!

AA: I want to note that Sand is not a "geology book"; or maybe it is, but if so it's a geology book inside a larger book, and that's a big part of its appeal, I think. Sand spills out of every container we put it in, even a conceptual one.

I quite enjoy the A-to-Z chapter. How else could you organize such a miscellany as the many uses we put sand to? It is precisely that chapter, as well as the two on "sand in the imagination," that break the mold of the typical popular geology book. I would call Sand a worthy addition to the genre that includes Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History, AND another great geology book.

When you give talks about sand, you actually do some demonstrations. What are some easy parlor tricks that can show us interesting facts about sand? We can watch the screen or print out your answer and pretend you're in the room explaining them.

That leads to another question: Are you podcasting?

MW: To answer the second question first - I am of a certain age, and remain sufficiently impressed with myself that I have set up and run a blog, that podcasting is a techno-step too far! I do realise that I should rectify this (and I have been told that I should investigate Twitter) but sometimes it seems that the 24 hour day is stretched as it is. That said, if you have recommendations/advice on podcasting, it would be much appreciated!

Ah yes, demonstrations. I recently gave a talk where the crutch of Powerpoint illustrations was not available, and so did it as a sort of "magic show" with the science thrown in. Most of it is simple. First of all, an hourglass is a great prop not only for timing but for demonstrating avalanche behaviours and their lack of predictability - fundamental physics before your eyes.

Then I've concocted mixtures in a jar to demonstrate the "brazil nut effect" - different sized granular materials that, when you shake them, the big chunks end up on top, counter-intuitively. I've done a fair amount of resourcing of different materials that are used (colourfully) for aquariums - mix these with natural sand ("play sand") and the results are made visible by the colour contrasts.

Obtainable online from educational toy suppliers are "magic sand wands" - long cylinders filled with coloured sand in which is a large steel ball. The challenge is to get the ball from one end of the wand to the other - which is simple if you know about the brazil nut effect.

Slightly more complex but dramatic is spontaneous segregation and stratification (i.e., cross-bedding) in what is known as a Hele-Shaw cell. All this is is a perspex (I can't remember if that is the British for plexiglass or the other way round) box, perhaps 30cm by 30cm by 1cm. I first saw Phillip Ball demonstrate this at a Royal Institution lecture, and, talking to him afterwards, came to realise how simple it is. I'd described in the book the serious physics research that is behind this, but was hugely satisfied to reproduce it in my own kitchen. Ideally, you make the box yourself, but I got some help. There is an online supply place that sells them.

I found that it took a lot of experimentation with different mixtures of natural sand and aquarium supplies to get a really dramatic result - see posts on my blog here and here. Natural sand as a major constituent is essential.

And you know the most simple but effective demonstration? It can be done as a pub bet, but illustrates beautifully the difference between dry and wet sand. Two ping pong balls - the challenge is to use one of them to get the other across a table without pushing it. All you have to do is wet the balls, put one next to the other, and pull them both across the table - the wonders of surface tension!

For my grand finale, I demonstrate Reynolds dilatancy and why your footprint in dark, wet, sand appears light (the water having drained away from the sand). This is slightly complex and needs preparation (like all good magic tricks) and involves a balloon filled with wet sand and a clear tube sticking out of it. There's enough water so that the level can be seen in the tube, and, if the ballooon is squeezed, what do you expect? Of course, the water in the tube will rise. But it doesn't, it falls. Totally counter-intuitive, totally the wonders and bizarre behaviours of sand and granular materials in general.

AA: Ah yes, your blog, Through the Sandglass. Isn't blogging a wonderful thing for a writer? You've said that you didn't cotton to blogging until it was suggested as today's marketing tool for authors. I agree that it is.

Being an author of a popular book, as opposed to a scientific paper, involves a lot more than preparing a manuscript. (Actually, as often as not the scientist sends a check TO the journal.) You aim for a good publisher with people who get what you're trying to do. You learn techniques of promotion. You buy an outfit suitable for TV. What else do you tell scientists about writing and publishing and publicizing a popular book? Does experience in academic publishing transfer to popular publishing? And what about the experience of industry scientists?

MW: Yes, blogging is a great opportunity to write stuff - on anything that interests you and without many of the constraints of more formal approaches. I enjoy it immensely, I've learned a lot, and it's put me in touch with all kinds of folk whom otherwise I would never have met, even "virtually" - like yourself.

Now, for the questions - which are difficult. Experience in academic publishing does not transfer easliy to popular publishing; yes, the skills developed in putting together a logical and rational case, for describing evidence, conclusions and uncertainty are all good basics, but the audience is totally different. What excites a fellow-researcher is not going to automatically grip an enthusiastic non-specialist - there has to be an element of translation and a lot more overt emotion, tangible excitement. This has nothing to do with the intellectual capacity of the two audiences (readers of popular science books are arguably more intellectually active than a lot of scientists) - it's simply about the language, the story.

I'm not sure that I can contribute a great deal about promotion, marketing, and publicity (I haven't yet had to figure out a TV outfit). My book has been published on either side of the Atlantic by great academic presses (University of California and Oxford) and I will be eternally grateful to them (and my tenacious agent) for recognising that the book might be of interest. And so I intend no offense if I say that the marketing arena (great word) of a university press is not the same as that of a commercial publisher. But the book has had consistently good reviews in the UK and the US. It simply hasn't been taken up by the mainstream media at all. However, the Burroughs Medal was a bolt from the blue, a great honour; unless you're emulating Harry Potter, that's where the rewards come from.

As for the experience of industry scientists, I think that it's different and valuable. They have immense experience in talking to different, non-technical audiences - management, government agencies, local interest groups and so on, and so the ability to translate, to tell the story is in many ways already there, along with the technical knowledge. In my experience there are large numbers of high-powered technical people in industry who have, of necessity, developed great communication skills - they should apply these to writing about their science (not about the industry - they obviously need to avoid proprietary contraints). Travel writing is a great genre for industry geologists - a lot of us have been to some very off-the-beaten-path places!

AA: Let me go back through our conversation so far and bring up a few points; call this the miscellany section of our visit...

You mention being attracted to geology from childhood and refer to collecting fossils at Lyme Regis. That makes me salivate! There is simply nothing in America like England's Jurassic Coast, although the great Devonian section of upstate New York, where my own formative fossil experience was, is pretty good too. I've been asking my readers about their first fossil, so let me invite you to join the crowd.

You mention giving talks with Powerpoint slides, and that reminds me of how so many geologists take great photographs. As a blogger, you seem to be like me in including at least one photo in everything you post, and Sand has a great many of your photos too. And on Flickr, you have posted more than a hundred photos. I think it is wonderful to get praise from readers, but there's nothing like a whole room full of people going "Wooo" at a picture one has taken. Are you giving many talks, and where can we attend them?

I had a question about the Brazil-nut effect: how sensitive to density is it? That is, can a sufficiently dense "brazil nut" resist the effect and stay down among the smaller particles when you shake the mixture?

"...the marketing arena (great word)..." A sand word! From the sand (arena in Latin) the Romans used to put on the ground there. You mention that the sand was to soak up blood. Surely it was useful for wrestling and running and sanitation with the horses and so on, too. I'm getting this vision of the ancient Romans mixed with the groundskeepers of baseball fields...

"...the Burroughs Medal..." Oh yes, congratulations on winning that! (I guess you'll need a new suit after all.) The Burroughs Medal is awarded by the American Museum of Natural History's John Burroughs Association for "well-written and illustrated natural history publications." I should think that the inclusion of illustration with writing is particularly gratifying for you. You join some distinguished company: Aldo Leopold for A Sand County Almanac and Peter Matthiessen for Sand Rivers. Any thoughts on those two books and authors?

And I'm very glad for your remarks about industry geologists. Their working lives are as rewarding as, though different from, the lives of academic researchers, but they don't get the same acclaim. And yet without them the profession would be hobbled, not to mention civilization itself.

MW: Right, I'll handle these sedately, one-by-one.

Fossils. I've taken up your invitation and posted a brief description of denuding Cheddar Gorge as a kid - it's a superb canyon in the Carboniferous limestone of Somerset, and, as I recall, my first fossil location.

I came later to appreciate that you are either born with the knack of finding fine fossils or you're not - and I was not. On a student fieldtrip to a classic graptolite locality in Wales, I had been hewing and splitting fruitlessly for some time when Richard Fortey wandered up and nonchalantly struck the outcrop with his hammer, revealing a whole cluster of superb graptolites. Richard, of course, went on to be a world-renowned trilobite expert and write, while I recognised that my skills lay elsewhere.

Powerpoint and talks. I have to say that I love Powerpoint - but I use it almost exclusively as a visual tool. I detest the idea of making your audience read bullet-point lists of text, but the software is terrific as an image manipultation and display tool. I gave a talk at the Long Beach Aquarium last year, and the powerpoint file was around 90 megabytes.

I really have no talks on the schedule at the moment, but since I'll be in New York in early April for the Burroughs Medal event, I'm hoping that my publishers can arrange some associated events. The problem is that such things so often take a lot of advance scheduling - perhaps I'll just give an open sermon in Central Park!

The Brazil nut effect. The thing that I find so compelling about this phenomenon (or, in reality, group of phenomena) is that an apparently simple situation (what could be simpler than shaking sand and gravel mixed up in a container?) illustrates fundamental physics and natural behaviours and continues to baffle physicists and engineers. Because you're right - it's not that simple; the more we look into it, the more complex it becomes.

Density, elasticity, boundary conditions, and interstitial air pressure all determine the results - which are highly variable and without easily explained causes. First of all, there is "the reverse brazil nut effect" - in certain circumstances, big, lightweight, grains descend. The there's the rate at which movement occurs and the variables that determine it. Here's a quote from the website of Heinrich Jaeger, the "guru" of these things at the University of Cicago:

the density of the larger particles on the Brazil Nut effect may be even more complicated: our results show that the speed at which the larger particle rises not only depends on the density of the larger particle, but that it does so in a highly non-monotonic fashion. This means that large particles that are either very heavy or very light move faster toward the surface of a granular mixture than particles of some intermediate weight (keeping size and shape unchanged).

And, from a recent paper by other researchers:

While a substantial number of studies have been performed, considerable work is still required to achieve a firm description of the phenomena.

The following is from my book:

Troy Shinbrot, a researcher at Rutgers University who has worked on segregation in drums and the RBN, often in collaboration with Jaeger, has written: "The RBN is sure to provide fruit for further exploration and debate. We find ourselves facing the situation anticipated by Mark Twain: 'The researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that, if they continue, we shall soon know nothing at all about it.' Although farmers can count on continuing harvests of heavy boulders under any segregation model, it remains to be seen whether—and how—pharmaceutical engineers should expect their granular formulations to mix or separate."

The strange thing from my personal point of view is that I am dramatically allergic to brazil nuts!

Baseball arenas. Following on from the Roman traditions, specialist sands are key ingredients of many different types of specialist sporting surfaces, including baseball. At the time of the last World Series, I wrote a piece about this on the blog.

Leopold and Matthiesen. No options here other than a confession. I haven't read A Sand County Almanac (I certainly must). There is, however, an interesting connection. One of Aldo's sons was Luna Leopold, geology professor at UC Berkeley who conducted and published groundbreaking work on rivers and fluvial sediment transport. Some of this work was done in an inspiring collaboration with Ralph Bagnold, the extraordinary British researcher and military man who had done the same thing for windblown sand in his classic 1941 book, The Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes. Bagnold recounts how, as the philosophy of their work together, they "agreed that we ought to 'stir the pool of complacent tradition with the stick of reality'." Leopold gave a superb tribute at Bagnold's memorial service in 1990.

I have read, I think around the time that I was embarking on a Himalayan excursion many years ago, Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard and enjoyed it immensely. I haven't, however, read Sand Rivers.

As I scrolled down the Burroughs list, there, for 1952, when I was spending a year in the States as a 6 year-old, I was further overwhelmed when I saw Rachel Carson and her iconic The Sea Around Us. I had used some of her resonant words as a chapter epigraph, and I'll conclude with them here: "The sediments are a sort of epic poem of the Earth. When we are wise enough, perhaps we can read in them all of past history."

AA: I had The Sea Around Us in my home as a child, and seeing its name in the Burroughs list roused happy memories for me too.

You say you're preparing for your next book. I'm betting that it will be either (1) your original book on landscape, the one you were plotting when Sand usurped it, or (2) Clay. But assuming it won't be either, I'd like to know what appealed to you about a book on landscape. It seems like another deeply connected topic that would spill outside of science.

MW: I conceived of the landscape book as a kind of traveler's guide - how to really look at a landscape. Travel guides tend to be, understandably, aimed at cultural attractions, with perhaps some "natural history" - birds, trees, and a bit of geology - as part of the introduction. But a landscape and its history is the foundation on which any culture develops, it's the main stage, not just the backdrop.

People who travel invariably have an innate curiosity about the landscape, but have little in the way of resources. I'm very aware of this since, every time I've been on a trip with non-geologists and they find out that I am one, I'm inundated with questions - very good ones. Yes, the topic is another that has all kinds of connections to explore. I suppose that I'll have to mention Richard Fortey again - his book, The Hidden Landscape (now re-issued) does this superbly for the UK.

Apart from that, I have various ideas for "the next book," but I also need to attend to the priority of some kind of income generation - books (unless Harry Potter) don't really fulfil that criterion!

AA: One of the things I admire about your book is that it's full of literature and history as well as science. I don't know if you scoured James Joyce's Ulysses for quotations, but here is one that I've always loved, from section 3 in which Stephen Dedalus, the young would-be writer, is musing as he tramps with his walkingstick out on Sandymount Strand, near Dublin, as the tide is beginning to come in...

"He climbed over the sedge and eely oarweeds and sat on a stool of rock, resting his ashplant on a grike. A bloated carcass of a dog lay lolled on bladderwrack. Before him the gunwale of a boat, sunk in sand. Un coche ensablé Louis Veuillot called Gautier's prose. These heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here."

Did you have as much fun with the literature as you did with the science?

MW: I must admit that scouring Ulysses was a step too far (thanks, however, for the addition), but I did find a piece from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that I used in the book - Joyce has a wonderful description of the eternity of hell in terms of a million-mile-high pile of sand, mutliplied by the number of drops of water in the ocean and a bird arriving annually to carry off one grain of sand. A great example of the imagery of sand in unimagineably large numbers of things!

Yes, I did indeed have as much fun with the literature and the imagery as with the science. With the literary examples, I was very much aided by my wife, who is not only better-read than I am, but can dig things out with unerring skill. However, perhaps even more enjoyable and surprising than the literary references was researching the world of art - sand as a medium and a muse. There were so many examples I had to leave out - the way, for example, the imagery and art around the idea of "ropes of sand" occurs in many different cultures, more details on sand drawing as a cultural tradition and the mathematics behind the designs... My discoveries were constantly fascinating - I didn't know about the art of Larry Nelson or Jim Denevan, both of whom were hugely helpful with the book. It was a great pleasure last summer to actually meet and talk with Denevan at one of his Outstanding in the Field gastronomic experiences. An enthusiastic and talented chef, he runs these events at farms around the US and we (thanks to our daughter's imaginative anniversary present) went to one outside Santa Cruz - utterly memorable.

These kinds of connections that have arisen from the book and the blog are an endless pleasure - I am not exaggerating when I say that life has taken on a whole series of new dimensions in ways that I would never have imagined.

AA: Many people don't know that the majority of Earth's carbon is tied up in limestone. But maybe you know this: Is the majority of Earth's sand tied up in sandstone?

MW: Oh my - anyone have a back of a used beer-soaked envelope? This reminds me of the infamous Carl Sagan claim that there are more stars in the universers than grains of sand in the earth's beaches - the true answer is unattainable, but it's the question that's fun.

There are various estimates (back of the envelope) on the planetary proportions of sand versus other types of sediment, and then, among the sands, how much is quartz and how much is other minerals (after all, there are huge volumes of carbonate sands around in the great biogenic engines of the tropics today). And then, sand versus sandstone, how do we classify the lithology at the base of the Indus submarine fan or the Mississippi delta? When does sand become sandstone?

So, my guess - and that's all it is - is that, given the volume of continental crust which preserves 3.5 billion years or so of the earth's history, and even more so if you accept calcareous sands, then the sandstones win hands down. Not a lot of sand has actually been destroyed in the last 3.5 billion years!

AA: You know, that's a point worth savoring -- that sand, a symbol of impermanence, is actually nearly indestructible. A sand grain is nearly as permanent as an atom. It's just one of many surprises and revelations in Sand: The Never-Ending Story, but it may be the most significant because that's why the life of a typical sand grain really is a never-ending story.

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