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Book Review: A Grain of Sand — Nature's Secret Wonder by Dr Gary Greenberg (Reviewed by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD)

Many years ago, E. F. Schumacher coined the phrase: “Small is beautiful.” While he referred to economics on a small scale, he could have easily been talking about the small in nature. Over the past few years, I have again marvelled at the beauty of snowflakes and ice crystals. Today, I have a new wondrous small beauty to “wow” over: sand grains. The beauty of these small objects has now been unveiled for us in Dr Gary Greenberg’s stunning book: A Grain of Sand — Nature's Secret Wonder.

A Grain of Sand is similar in style to The Snowflake: Winter's Secret Beauty by Dr Kenneth Libbrecht and Patricia Rasmussen. Both are works by scientists/artists who have developed microphotographic techniques for giving us a glimpse into Nature’s smaller secrets. While we can see a single grain of sand or snowflake if we look close enough, bringing them into a larger format opens a surprising world of stunning beauty that is literally underfoot.

A Grain of Sand is perhaps a bit inaccurate as a title, for Greenberg takes us on a microscopic tour of the world through sand grains — 235 pictures in all. And he doesn’t just show us ocean beach sand. No, he gives us views of desert sand and volcanic sand: the sands of Hawaii and Tahiti, the Sahara and the Poles, all the continents.

To produce such stunning photographs, Dr Greenberg turned the attention of a microphotography technique he developed for biomedical research first to the sands of Maui, then to the sands of the world. The marvel of his camera technology is that it takes a series of images at different focal distances to provide a stunningly sharp, three-dimensional photograph of its subject. Thus, each grain stands out like a little jewel amongst its equally gem-like neighbors.

Greenberg keeps us from going into sensory overload by interspersing several essays describing the nature of sand: its color and texture, its shapes and patterns, its origins and movements, and its formation and transformation. In these informative essays, he tells us why sand below the waterline differs from sand in the dunes above (water versus wind erosion affects the shaping of the grains). He informs us that sand grains are not just “little brown rocks”, but contain colorful minerals, pieces of living organisms, and often pollution — though it is hard to see the transformed pollution as undesirable in these pictures. Greenberg also describes for us the camera assembly he used in the photography.

Greenberg sees the importance of linking science and art so that we see the beauty in the world, using images of nature to produce artistic works in many media. Though each photo in this book is of great beauty on its own, Greenberg has taken extra time in a number of the volume’s photographs to rearrange the sand grains into a more artistic pattern and on occasion, he has produced several computer-generated art from a montage of the images.

I have been a fan of photographs and videos of the small world since my youth, watching blood flowing through veins and insects dwelling in flower tubes on the many nature shows. I have peered through the microscope lens to see what my eyes have missed. I have enjoyed the work of Bentley, Libbrecht, Nilsson, and Strache. Now I add Gary Greenberg and look forward to future works by this photographer/artist/scientist.

After reading A Grain of Sand — Nature's Secret Wonder, I circulated the book among the members of my art group who marvelled at the beauty of Greenberg’s photographs. This is a book that deserves a place on the bookshelves of anyone interested in art and nature, though I would imagine many copies will sit out on tables for more frequent browsing. I strongly recommend this book.

Reviewed by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD

The Weather Doctor

© May 8, 2008

A Grain of Sand — Nature's Secret Wonder by Dr Gary Greenberg

2008, Voyageur Press, Minneapolis, Mn, ISBN: 0760331987, Hardcover, 112 pp.

A Grain of Sand by Dr. Gary Greenberg

Another Book Review: A Grain of Sand — Nature's Secret Wonder by Dr Gary Greenberg - Shutterbug, October 2008 (circ.: 109,400)

A Grain of Sand was reviewed by C. A. Boylan in their Creativity Section.  This is what he had to say:

"Sand, it’s everywhere and may seem ordinary but Dr. Gary Greenberg expertly combined art and science to reveal the true beauty of each microscopic grain. Sand consists of a vast collection of bits of crystals, coral, shells, sea urchin spines, silica, and calcium carbonate each with a unique shape and color. Dr. Greenberg provided 235 vividly colored images and in depth information to provide a fascinating look at how nature is constantly reshaping the earth and hiding tiny treasures at our feet."

And another Book Review: A Grain of Sand — Nature's Secret Wonder by Dr Gary Greenberg (Vatche P. Tchakerian) Download PDF

A Grain of Sand: Nature’s Secret Wonders, Gary Greenberg, Voyageur Press, 2008, 112 pages.

‘‘Art will lead the way in conveying science to the consciousness of twenty-first century culture” – Gary Greenberg.

A Grain of Sand: Nature’s Secret Wonders (Voyageur Press, 2008, 112 pages) by Gary Greenberg is a spectacular atlas of sand grains as seen through the lenses of a microscope. The author – an artist, scientist, and inventor – has photographed and written the text for this delightful book that in 10 brief chapters, takes the reader on an amazing visual journey into
the microscopic realm of sand grains and beach deposits from around the world. The primary aim of the author is to enlighten the world to the existence of this unique world of ‘‘sand art.”

It all begins in Hawaii and its fabulous multicolored beaches that contain myriad minerals eroded from volcanic rocks – from
pure olivine crystal beaches to black basaltic beaches and everything in between. Chapter 2 provides the author’s background as well as some technical details regarding the various ways he has used the microscope to photograph sand grains. The montage of
Maui sand grains made of twenty-seven individual photographs (p. 33) sums up the author’s primary objective to ‘‘create art
through the microscope”. In Chapter 3, the geology, mineralogy and oceanography of sand grains and beaches are highlighted. The creation of sand by erosion, beach mineralogy and formation, coral reefs and beach ecology, are all discussed and beautifully illustrated with micrographs and photos. Chapter 4 presents the spectacular range of natural colors of minerals that make up beach sands – from the ubiquitous quartz grains to the heavy minerals of garnet, epidote, magnetite to shell fragments, corals, sea urchin spines, foraminifera and other unique biogenic materials. Chapter 5 exhibits the incredibly wide variety of shapes that individual
mineral grains can take, including a magnificent three-pronged sponge spicule next to a purple sea urchin spine (p. 76). The shapes
and colors of minerals and biogenic sands are lavishly presented by many fabulous close-up micro-photos. Chapter 6 brings the book
to a close with colorful illustrations of patterns and designs of spirals, dots, honeycombs, stripes, radical symmetries, rings, and worm trails found among biogenic sand grains. A brief two page index concludes the book.

I strongly recommend this book to all my geosciences colleagues. It can be used in classes and labs to illustrate the composition, shape, and mineralogy of beach sand from around the world. At the end of the Afterword, the author recalls a comment by the great Nobel Laureate physicist Richard Feynman, made during a dinner conversation which really captures the essence of his book and message: ‘‘he didn’t think our society was truly in a sci-
entific age because we hadn’t yet embraced science in our art”.

Vatche P. Tchakerian
Texas A&M University,
College of Geosciences, Geography,
810 O&M (Eller) Building, College Station,
TX 77843-3147, United States
Tel.: +1 979 845 7997; fax: +1 979 862 4487
E-mail address:

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