Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible

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9780520218758: Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible
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While the story of the big has often been told, the story of the small has not yet even been outlined. With Dust, 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 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.

Los Angeles Times Best Nonfiction Book of 2000

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About the Author:

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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FROM THE FIRST CHAPTER: Mothered by the same earth, dust and dirt have different fathers. Dust--finer and more discrete--belongs as much to air as to earth. Dirt--bigger and clumsier--is identified with soil. When wet, dirt reveals a closer kinship to water than to dust. But dirt's real father, which vouches for its closer affinity to the soil, is muck or, to be more precise, excrement. this book is much more about dust than dirt; it is about dust's role as a condition of life and as a measure of the small until the start of the century. Once, not so long ago, dust constituted the finest thing the human eye could see. In the form of gold dust or pollen, as light filaments that covered the skin, or as individual particles that spun int he sunlight, dust was the most minuscule thing people encountered. Like darkness and skin, dust was an omnipresent boundary, in this case between the visible and the invisible. In advanced twentieth-century society, visible dust has been removed from the surface of most things, and the kingdom of dust has been opened to examination by scientific instruments. it has been studied, regulated in industry and society, and controlled in dwellings, in public buildings, and on the streets. Dust, always varied in composition, is now seen as a highly diverse particulate and a matter of sub-microscopic exactness. Along with so many other minute things of the preindustrial world, dust has been swept to the edges of contemporary society and, thus, to the margins of contemporary consciousness. As with all that was once considered really small, dust has been redefined by a great twentieth-century revolution--a revolution of the minuscule. Denied the intellectual fanfare of the astronomical revolution, which removed the earth from the center of the universe and declared the universe infinite, this revolution of the petite declared the infinity of the infinitesimal. It has forced humans to recognize the immensity and might of the small. For the first time ever, at least for those with inquisitive minds, the world below became as vast, fascinating, and powerful as the heavens above. The roots of this revolution lie in early modern history, with the development of finely made human goods and the first microscopic perceptions of reality. It has been sustained with the discovery of microbes and the diagnosis and cure of viral and bacterial diseases; the reading of DNA and the deciphering of genes; and the division and fusion of atoms. Among its consequences was the end of the perennial identification of dust and smallness.

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