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Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible

Popular Science
Los Angeles Times Best Nonfiction Book of 2000

By: Joseph A Amato (Author), Jeffrey Burton Russell (Foreword By), Abigail Rorer (Illustrator)

288 pages, 30 b/w illustrations

University of California Press

Paperback | Nov 2001 | #121442 | ISBN: 0520231953
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £16.95 $21/€19 approx
Hardback | Dec 2000 | #101701 | ISBN: 0520218752
Out of Print Details

About this book

While the story of the big has often been told, the story of the small has not yet even been outlined. With Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible, Joseph Amato enthralls the reader with the first history of the small and the invisible. Dust is a poetic meditation on how dust has been experienced and the small has been imagined across the ages. Examining a thousand years of Western civilization – from the naturalism of medieval philosophy, to the artistry of the Renaissance, to the scientific and industrial revolutions, to the modern worlds of nanotechnology and viral diseases – Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible offers a savvy story of the genesis of the microcosm.

Dust, which fills the deepest recesses of space, pervades all earthly things. Throughout the ages it has been the smallest yet the most common element of everyday life. Of all small things, dust has been the most minute particulate the eye sees and the hand touches. Indeed, until this century, dust was simply accepted as a fundamental condition of life; like darkness, it marked the boundary between the seen and the unseen.

With the full advent of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and social control, dust has been partitioned, dissected, manipulated, and even invented. In place of traditional and generic dust, a highly diverse particulate has been discovered and examined. Like so much else that was once considered minute, dust has been magnified by the twentieth-century transformations of our conception of the small. These transformations – which took form in the laboratory through images of atoms, molecules, cells, and microbes – defined anew not only dust and the physical world but also the human body and mind. Amato dazzles the reader with his account of how this powerful microcosm challenges the imagination to grasp the magnitude of the small, and the infinity of the finite.

"Amato's elegant little book not only scrutinizes dust, but reaches out to examine the history of the small and invisible, in general [...] A diverting, thought-provoking amalgam of science, literature, intellectual and social history. Playful yet serious, Amato's supple prose conveys the hidden poetry of his subject."
– Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times

"Amato writes well; he is a litterateur, an elegant stylist and, presumably, a good historian. Clearly, though, Amato is no scientist [...] I'm sure many lay readers will find this book entertaining."
– Ralph Lewin, Nature

"This one won't sit on your coffee table collecting, well, eponymous stuff."
Chicago Tribune, Editor's Choice

"Both suggestive and well written. It is also printed on beautiful acid-free paper, to prevent it from turning into dust."
Daily Telegraph (UK)

"A brisk social, medical, and philosophical overview of humanity's relationship to the small and invisible."
– Wendy Law-Yone, Washington Post

"Amato's penetrating history provides a unique perspective on how greatly we have altered our environment and perhaps our nature, bringing new poignancy to the recognition that from dust we came and to dust we shall return."
– Donna Seaman, Booklist

"The very inventions that brought light, heat, running water, and sanitation to society created new miasmas and particulate matter to darken and poison the earth [...] [Amato] has forcefully underscored just how much humankind has both suffered and feared, celebrated and revered, the visible world of dust."


Foreword, by Jeffrey Burton Russell
Introduction: Little Things Mean a Lot

1. Of Times When Dust Was the Companion of All
2. Old Metaphors and New Measures of the Microcosm
3. Early Discernment of the Minute
4. The Great Cleanup
5. Atoms and Microbes: New Guides to the Small and Invisible
6. Discerning the Invisible for the Good of the Nation
7. Lighting Up the Microcosm
8. The Snake Still Lurks
Conclusion: Who Will Tremble at These Marvels?

Bibliographic Essay
Personal Thoughts and Thanks

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Joseph A. Amato is Dean of Rural and Regional Studies at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota. Some of his most recent titles include Golf Beats Us All (So We Love It) (1997); The Decline of Rural Minnesota (1993); The Great Jerusalem Artichoke Circus: The Buying and Selling of the American Rural Dream (1993); and Victims and Values: A History and Theory of Suffering (1990).

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