Sand Like You've Never Seen It Before

Once more unto the beach

To the naked eye, sand looks pretty uniform. Tiny beige specks of varying shades, collectively covering beaches and shores and deserts. But when you peek at it through a microscope, all of that changes. Gary Greenburg, a research affiliate at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, created a 3D high-definition light microscope in the 1990s, and he's been capturing fascinating sand close-ups since then.

The Secrets Of The Sand: A Journey Into the Amazing Microscopic World of Sand

Courtesy Quarto Publishing

Now he's put out a book of sand imagery, along with colleagues Carol Kiely, an adjunct professor at Lehigh University, and Kate Clover, a gallery program manager at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. Kiely worked with NASA in 2008 to examine lunar dust particles collected during the Apollo missions, and ended up using Greenburg's technique to capture some spectacular images. Clover grew up on white sand beaches and formed a love for geology.

The book, titled The Secrets of Sand: A Journey into the Amazing Microscopic World of Sand, details the surprisingly complexity of sand and where it comes from. That includes sand from pure white beaches to colorful gem-like sand made up of tiny fragments of garnet and agate, which look like rock candy under a microscope. And of course, there are plenty of images of moon dust, which comes in colors ranging from bright green to deep orange. You can get a taste of the authors' fascinating imagery and captions in the gallery excerpt above.

This sand is from Kingston, Washington on Puget Sound, a deep inlet of the Pacific Ocean that boasts one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world. The ribbed mollusk fragment, perhaps a cockleshell sits among sand grains delivered by the glaciers from the Olympic and Cascade Mountains during the last ice age and more recently, via rivers. Magnified 120 times.Puget Sound Sand

"Orange Soil" Lunar Dust

These tiny, glassy orange spherules originate from a fire-fountain volcano that erupted over 3.8 billion years ago on the moon. Apollo 17 astronauts discovered this "orange soil" on the rim of Shorty Crater in the Taurus Littrow Valley. Magnified 340 times.Gary Greenberg, Carol Kiely, and Kate Clover

Hadley Rille Lunar Dust

The Apollo 15 lunar landing site was close to a deep canyon, known as Hadley Rille, which is thought to be a collapsed lava tube. On their way up to Spur Crater on the flank of Mount Hadley Delta in the lunar Apennine Mountain range, astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin spotted several clod-like boulders that contained green material that sparkled in the sunlight. By the time the bag in which they had been placed was opened back on Earth, the boulders had broken into several pieces. Some tiny glass spheres and other fragments were also found in the bottom of the bag. Chemical analysis reveals that the glass is a mixture of silicon, iron, magnesium, and calcium oxide, with only trace amounts of titanium and sodium. It is thought that these spheres, like that in the previous photograph, originated from a fire-fountain volcano that erupted over 3.3 billion years ago. Magnified 105 times.Gary Greenberg, Carol Kiely, and Kate Clover

Lunar Dust From The Sea Of Tranquility

Whether you are walking along a beach, climbing the dunes of a scorched desert, or making a "giant leap for mankind," you are treading on millions of years of geological history. This beautiful gem-like particle found in a sample of lunar dust collected from the Sea of Tranquility, may have started out as a large pyroxene crystal, but along the way it has undergone several fractures, and its internal structure has been modified. The dark vertical lines indicate where one section of the crystal has been sheared with respect to another when a micrometer traveling at a speed close to fifty thousand miles per hour smashed into the lunar surface. Magnified 520 times.Gary Greenberg, Carol Kiely, and Kate Clover

Tiny Foram From Mumbai, India

The spirally foram was found in beach sand from Mumbai, India, on the Arabian Sea in the northwestern region of the Indian Ocean. The Arabian Sea is a biological paradise with diverse marine flora and marine fauna. The nutrients, which support marine diversity, come from river runoff and upwelling. Upwelling is the process in which nutrient-rich waters are brought to the surface, especially during the monsoon season when the winds and currents switch directions. Forams are important in the marine food web; they provide food for snails, sand dollars, and small fish. Magnified 175 times.Gary Greenberg, Carol Kiely, and Kate Clover

Hilton Head Quartz Sand

This sand from Hilton Head, South Carolina on the Atlantic is mostly quartz and it originated in the Appalachian Mountains. A sand comprised almost entirely of quartz, like this one, is indicative of sand originating on a continent where the ancient bedrock is granite. Granite is composed of quartz, feldspar, and other dark minerals. As it erodes, the feldspar breaks down into clay-size particles and the hard and chemically stable quartz survives to become grains of beach sand. Magnified 60 times.Gary Greenberg, Carol Kiely, and Kate Clover

Great Salt Lake Sand

The sand from Great Salt Lake in Utah is different from most other sands. It is made up entirely of ooids--tiny, rounded, white to garish orbs that each formed around a nucleus such as a brine-shrimp fecal pellet or a mineral fragment. As the grains rolled around in the lake's shallow, hypersaline water, they accumulated more and more layers, like snowballs do when rolled across snow-covered ground. Magnified 45 times.Gary Greenberg, Carol Kiely, and Kate Clover