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Whether white, beige, pink, or black, sand looks monochromatic to the naked eye. We see small grains of the same color (more or less).
But magnified with a microscope, sand is quite remarkable. Instead of looking at tiny, solid-color grains, magnified sand looks like a diverse pile of craft beads.
Sand is a granular material composed of finely ground rock, minerals, and biological matter. The composition of sand varies according to the local geology and biology of a region. It may be made up of ground silica, quartz, gypsum, selenite, and life forms like shellfish or coral.
Most sand is formed when rocks erode over time due to water and wind, and deposit sediments. These sediments continuously break down into smaller pieces, leading to fine grains of sand. The intensity of the environment and type of rock create different compositions. Beach and marine sand are formed similarly over thousands of years.
In areas with a high concentration of natural gemstones, sand may contain fragments of resistant minerals like garnets and other gemstones.
Each grain of sand is only about a tenth of a millimeter in size, which is the smallest size the naked eye can detect. This explains why it appears as identical grains to us but reveals a fascinating mix of different materials under magnification.
There are about 8 billion grains of sand per cubic meter of beach and about 700 billion cubic meters of beach on the planet. That’s about 5 sextillion grains of sand—a number that’s unimaginable to the human mind.
And yet, each grain of sand is completely unique. In many ways, sand is similar to snowflakes. We’ve all heard the phrase “no two snowflakes are identical.” This is because of how snowflakes are formed.
When a snowflake falls, its growth pattern is sensitive to the temperature and turbulence of its path. No two will ever be alike, but they reflect the conditions that form them.
Like snowflakes and their environments, each beach or desert is different, and every grain of sand is different. And similarly, they act as a time capsule, revealing their biological and mineral makeup.
With greater magnification, sand can show coral, seashells, crystals, minerals, rocks, and more. Depending on the temperature, surf conditions, and marine or desert environment, sand can include a variety of different organic and inorganic matter–like a pile of gemstones.
Sand is a non-renewable resource on a human timescale. Collecting sand for hobby or research purposes doesn’t present an environmental concern, however.
If you want to become an arenophile (hobby sand collector), you can get started with local samples and a stereo microscope. This microscope is powerful enough to magnify sand and show you all the diversity in the sample. As you develop your hobby, you can try sand microphotography to document what you find and share beautiful and fascinating magnified photos of sand and its features.
Though it may not be visually appealing to our eyes, sand holds a hidden world of wonder under magnification. With no grain alike and a diverse mix of rocks, minerals, coral, lava, and other marine organisms, sand tells a fascinating story of where it came from.
Featured Image Credit: Harsha Chandwani, Shutterstock
Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.
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