Dust's secret life: It's all around you

September 30, 2001|By Maryalice Yakutchik | By Maryalice Yakutchik,Special to the Sun

The Secret Life of Dust, by Hannah Holmes. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 228 pages $22.95.

Something about this nonfiction book -- its scientific nature, perhaps, and the fact that it had its beginnings in the Gobi Desert -- compels this reviewer to get down to the nitty gritty.

So here goes. I pledge (with lemon freshness) that The Secret Life of Dust is worth the price on its dust jacket; that those seduced from cleaning chores to take to their dust-mite-infested sofas with Hannah Holmes' impeccably researched yet lighthearted book will be smarter and happier. And in all likelihood, healthier.

Sound like snake oil? Hardly. Holmes is a widely published freelance writer of science and natural history whose debut book is a true tonic. She's a trustworthy if irreverent narrator, quoting an impressive array of "dust scholars" -- astronomers, geochemists, oceanographers and aerobiologists who scavenge for dust everywhere from under two-mile-thick Antarctic ice sheets to the stratosphere.

Holmes' timely book is brimming their theories, none hotter than the "hygiene hypothesis" which suggests that life in the industrialized nations is not dusty enough. "In spiffed-up spots all over the world," Holmes reports, "this regrettable lack of grime is producing crowds of weaklings."

Blithely quoting Nietzsche ("What doesn't kill me makes me stronger"), the erudite author asserts that even sanitized souls can take heart. In the time it takes to read just a few paragraphs, they too will inhale 150,000 bits of dust, including everything from crumbs chipped off Saharan sand and invisible shreds of camel hair to spores of forest fungi and desiccated violets as well as specks of spider leg and maybe even an ancient grain of primordial stardust. (That's a conservative figure, according to Holmes, applicable in cleaner corners of the world. Folks in grubbier regions probably inhale more than a million, she adds.)

Restless readers of science might balk, if not at a few dusty paragraphs, then certainly at 11 chapters. (Holmes' playful description of dust mites is worth scampering ahead to Chapter 10.) Who wouldn't be dubious about a whole book devoted to dust? I'm not the first to admit that I thought dust was ... well, a dry subject.

"When I first got started in atmospheric science 20 years ago, I thought dust was the most boring topic imaginable," confesses Steve Warren to Holmes. He's a Seattle-based ice-and-atmosphere scholar who has toyed with the idea that dust did in the Ice Age.

In the hands of Holmes, dust is sparkling and new. She contemplates how it contributed to the end of the Ice Age and the demise of dinosaurs and the creation of the cosmos; as it contributes now to the sickness not only of sea fans but also countless thousands of people. She sheds light on the stuff that adheres to our computer monitors. She transforms skulking dust bunnies into exotic animals. She takes the ubiquitous and common, that which is right under our noses -- rather, in them -- and renders it remarkable.

Holmes' main character is neither inanimate nor passive. Dust-as-protagonist roams, commits mischief and murder; it etches, harasses, and fuels; it even "arrives like a catering service." The dust-ologists who toil to collect the stuff and keep it from getting lost (a surprisingly sticky task) are an intriguing bunch, including "dust-huntress" Susan Taylor, a "Medusa-haired and Birkenstock-shod research scientist" who built "a very clean vacuum cleaner on the end of a string" with which she mines space dust from a 350-foot well in Antarctica. And Rick Hoblitt, a volcanologist on Montserrat who "has the classic look of a geologist, with an impressive mustache and leather hiking boots a team of surgeons will have to remove when he dies."

Holmes' book belongs on your shelf, in a dusty nook between the works of Diane Ackerman and John McPhee.

Maryalice Yakutchik is associate producer of expeditions for Discovery.com and has developed natural science stories in Madagascar, Morocco, the U.S. Southwest and elsewhere. She has written for more than a dozen newspapers and magazines, mainly on science.

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