Turning the World to Powder

Jay Owens on the tiny particles that float through our lives

Adam Campbell/Flickr
Adam Campbell/Flickr

Our lives are filled with dust: on our desks, under our couches, and in the air we breathe. If we’re very unlucky—like the residents of Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico—it includes uranium blowing off heaps of mining waste. Or the carbon particles carried along by the wood smoke of forest fires. Or microplastics rubbing off car brakes and tires as we screech across the 120 million miles of road in the world. Or a sandy cloud from the Sahara Desert, blowing across the ocean. You get the picture: dust coats the planet, and for the past few centuries, we’ve been the progenitors of increasing amounts of it. In her book Dust: The Modern World in a Trillion Particles, the London-based writer and researcher Jay Owens argues that we ignore these tiniest byproducts at our own peril, and she demonstrates their consequences in a variety of places: a California lake drained to service LA in the 1930s, the cracked bed of the Aral Sea, icy Greenland, and smog-choked Tudor England.

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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