Leave it to an accomplished science writer like Hannah Holmes to unearth so much about so little in The Secret Life of Dust. Zooming in on one of the great, often unnoticed constants of life on Earth--dust, in all its myriad forms--Holmes traverses biology, astronomy, climatology, pathology, and a host of other fields to dig up the serious dirt. Because while dust might be vital to life on our planet (and may, in fact, even be responsible for it), this "heartless little brute" could also be responsible for the deaths of millions. And she's not talking about dinosaurs (or at least not just yet.)
Tackling her topic roughly by the different roles that dust plays, Holmes alternately devotes chapters to specks of space dust ("They're everywhere," gushes one scientist she interviews, " ... you eat them all the time. Any carpet would have 'em"); Oviraptor-burying desert dust, particles of dust that go up instead of down (like sea salt and soot); and foreign pollution that heeds no borders (apparently, "Beijing fog" can be bad enough to cause traffic accidents). She saves the best for last with a couple of chapters on "unsavoury characters" and "microscopic monsters", finding danger in the obvious (cigarettes and vermiculite mines) and the not so obvious (hot tubs and humidifiers). And you don't even want to know what's in pig dust.
We're swimming in it, we're covered with it, we might very well have come from it, and--surely, eventually--we'll become it. So we really don't have much an excuse for not knowing more about it. Thankfully, Holmes is there, in the field and in the lab, with wide-eyed curiosity and a scientific eye for detail. And, "perhaps by tuning in to the news bulletins issued by some of the planet's smallest reporters" we can all have a better sense of how things are going for the whole. --Paul Hughes