Cover image for Dust : a history of the small and the invisible
Dust : a history of the small and the invisible
Amato, Joseph Anthony.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Berkeley : University of California Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xii, 250 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library RA577.D8 A48 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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

Author Notes

Joseph A. Amato is Dean of Rural and Regional Studies at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Dust has always been integral to human life, both physically and metaphorically, and served as "the primary measure of the small" until the advent of the microscope. Amato, whose love of language matches his delight in his provocative subject, maps our relationship with dust and the microcosm in an enlightening and adroit interdisciplinary synthesis. He begins by vividly describing the dark and dirty interiors of the European Middle Ages and the "great cleanup" precipitated by the invention of glass windows and later accelerated by electricity. Once the connection between disease and hygiene was established, cleanliness reached new heights, but, perversely enough, the very technologies that made sanitation systems possible created new and more dangerous forms of dust, which cause acid rain and other forms of pollution. Moving ever more deeply into the microcosm, Amato ponders the implications of the manipulation of DNA, the war against viruses, the use of nuclear energy, and our intimacy with computers. 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

Publisher's Weekly Review

Until this century, dust and dirtÄmotes, mites, flea parts, skin flecks, pollen, garden dirtÄwere the smallest things most people thought about. They seemed omnipresent and ineradicable. Now we vacuum our kitchens, take showers, study quarks and give most dust the brush-off. Speaking up for the little things, Amato (The Great Jerusalem Artichoke Circus), professor of intellectual and cultural history at Minnesota's Southwest State University, offers a book-length meditation on the importance and symbolism of particulate matter in Europe and America. Anthropologist Mary Douglas; medieval historians like Lucien Febvre and Carlo Ginzburg; Renaissance sculptors, glassblowers and alchemists; microscope pioneers Leeuwenhoek and Hooke; and Dolly the cloned sheep all figure in Amato's speedy cultural history. Medieval French folk frequently deloused each other and called their thumbs "louse-killers." Early Victorian urbanization brought Britain filthy slums, along with reformers who tried to clean them up: later on, lightbulbs banished indoor soot. The Dust Bowl years of 1932-1938 darkened the skies of the American Midwest and caused more than half its residents to move away. Amato aims at a broad literary readership, not at historians of science; his synthetic, essayistic bent can make for glib and predictable generalizations ("Until the Industrial Revolution, humanity accepted the cyclical nature of life"). In our century, Amato writes, "smallness and dust have diverged"; by now dust is neither our metaphor for littleness, nor our constant companion. Instead "contemporary people are married to a new microcosm" consisting of things (like viruses) too small to see. Readers who find such a thesis small potatoes may still find themselves enticed by Amato's accounts of the minuscule. 30 line illus. by Abigail Rorer. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

To call something "dry as dust" is to suggest that it is dull and insignificant. Thus, one might wonder why anybody would write a book about dust. Amato (The Decline of Rural Minnesota), a cultural historian, gives it a noble effort, but, in doing so, stretches his resources. It's not that dust is entirely devoid of interestÄit has had a profound effect on human health and hygiene, and you might say that the ultimate fate of the universe depends on how much dust resides unseen in the cosmos. Still, because the topic itself is hardly riveting, Amato places it within the broader context of the history of human understanding of the microcosmos. That's a much bigger subject than the title suggests, and it deserves a more comprehensive treatment than this book attempts. An optional purchase.ÄGregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Coral Gables, FL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Amato (Southwest State Univ., Marshall, Minnesota) writes only incidentally about dust; rather, he reviews how humanity's view of the unseen world changed throughout the ages as the ability to see it, through magnification, increased. Starting with the filthy environment of the Middle Ages, the author takes us through the reasons behind the elaborate mannerisms of the Renaissance, how views of the unseen changed during the Scientific Revolution, to how the invention of artificial lighting spawned a craze for cleanliness starting in the late Victorian era and culminating during the mid-1900s. Amato touches on such diverse topics as the role of light in art, germ theory and medical advances, particle physics, and the effect of artificially made dusts on the environment. He concludes with a philosophical view of the future of humanity as medical and scientific advances takes it into uncharted waters. This is not a book about science, technology, or medicine but rather a survey of how all of these altered humanity's view of the unseen. It is best approached as a good read for the intellectually curious, and extensive chapter notes and a bibliographic essay make it a starting point for additional reading. A unique feature is a lengthy section of the author's personal reminiscences. All levels. C. G. Wood; Eastern Maine Technical College

Table of Contents

Jeffrey Burton Russell
Forewordp. ix
Introduction: Little Things Mean a Lotp. 1
1. Of Times When Dust Was the Companion of Allp. 15
2. Old Metaphors and New Measures of the Microcosmp. 36
3. Early Discernment of the Minutep. 47
4. The Great Cleanupp. 67
5. Atoms and Microbes: New Guides to the Small and Invisiblep. 92
6. Discerning the Invisible for the Good of the Nationp. 110
7. Lighting Up the Microcosmp. 126
8. The Snake Still Lurksp. 143
Conclusion: Who Will Tremble at These Marvels?p. 157
Notesp. 179
Bibliographic Essayp. 221
Personal Thoughts and Thanksp. 237

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