Searching for Silica: An Interview with the Curator of Ohio’s Largest Sand Collection

Sand Collection

Most collections start innocently enough.  A person finds something that brings them joy, and then they want more of it. In this day and age of minimalism and decluttering, don’t discount the happiness that a carefully curated collection can bring.  I sat down for a conversation with Brian King, the Curator of Ohio’s Largest Sand Collection, to find out what got him started and what brings him joy from his collection.Sand Collection

The first sample came from Oak Island, North Carolina, in 2011.  It was Brian’s first family vacation to a beach as a parent. He noticed the tiny grains on the beach and was reminded of his pottery class.  If you melt sand, you get glass.  Silica, which is part of the glazes used in pottery, melts clear and shiny.  He looked at the sand under his feet and thought, “There’s no way you melt this, and it becomes clear because it has shells and stuff in it.”  His curiosity was sparked.  If this is sand and it is not silica, then where does silica sand come from? And if sand is not silica, then what qualifies as sand. He put a small sand sample in a bag and took it home, intending to fire it in the kiln to see how it melts. 

The Collection

Brian’s sand collection has grown since then.  He currently has 120 samples, exclusively from the western hemisphere. His assortment spans from the Rio Negro in Brazil’s Amazon basin, both the southernmost (-3.1 latitude) and easternmost (-54 longitude) sample, to Molokai, Hawaii to the west (-157.25 longitude) and Amalik Bay, Alaska (58.12 latitude) to the north.

Geographic Distribution of Sand collection
The range of geographic distribution of sands in the collection

The vials are artfully contained in a flannel gray box in three rows and three layers of 15ml clear glass vials. The sands range in color from black to white, with “lots of earth tones,” he says, but he has a couple of pink samples, too, and there is a green sand beach in Hawaii that he covets. Each vial is filled with sand and labeled with the location name, who collected it and the GPS coordinates. In addition, each vial has its own identifying number handwritten on the bottom. This number corresponds to information cataloged in a spreadsheet that allows Brian to quickly sort the data from his collection.  “How can he have 120 samples using two only digit numbers?” you may wonder.  Realizing his ambition could result in an extensive collection and knowing the space on the bottom of the vials is limited, Brian chose a hexadecimal numbering system that affords 255 unique numbers using only two characters (numbers 0-9 and letters A-F).

What is Sand?

One of Brian’s favorite samples is from the northeastern shore of Lake Michigan just outside of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.  Growing up in suburban Chicago, Brian was struck by how shockingly different the northeast coast of Lake Michigan is from his familiar southwestern shore.  The fine beige sand of this Michigan beach had black streaks running through it.  It turns out to be magnetite. “This brought me back to the question, ‘What is sand?’  Can it be anything?”  It turns out that it is defined by particle size (larger than silt and smaller than gravel).  Magnetite is a lot denser than other sand, so it was easy to filter out with a magnet.  The magnetite vial is noticeably heavier than any of the other samples.

Michigan Sand
Pure magnetite (separated with a magnet) on the left. Two samples of beach sand form the area.
Magnetite sand
Close up of Magnetite. Notice how perfectly round the grains are.

Some of the most remarkable samples are those from the southeastern coast of the United States.  “They are full of tiny intact shells.  It’s like exploring a whole beach under the microscope.” 

A beach under the microscope
The range of sands on a beach. Finer grained on the left from the tumbled surf zone ranging to full shells and bits of coral from the deeper water.
Hawaiian Sand
Shells, Rocks, and Coral make up Hawaiian Sand

The youngest sand in Brian’s collection comes from Spearfish Canyon in South Dakota along a moving fault line.  “It’s like a river delta along the rock face of the canyon funneling out sand like an hourglass.  Right from the rock, it’s still jaggedy and raw.”

Young Sand
“Young sand” is still recognizable as rock, in this case, bits of shale

Lessons from Sand Collecting

One of the greatest benefits of sand collecting is that it has given Brian the ability to recognize the geology of a place. Sand and rocks look different in different places, and he notices that now in ways that he didn’t before.  That is an unexpected skill that he really enjoys.  He shared this story to illustrate the point. “There’s that story about somebody with the CIA tracking somebody down, and they have a video.  Some geologist was able to recognize the location based on the rocks in the background. I thought at the time, ‘Wow. That’s amazing. How could you do that?’ and now I can kinda do that. So I’m watching a movie with my kids. It’s The Martian, and at the end, there’s a scene that starts with the camera zoomed in on some gravel. I was just walking into the room at that point, and I said, ‘That looks like the gravel in the National Mall,’ and the boys looked at me and kind of rolled their eyes a little.  I go sit back down, and then the camera pulls back, and there’s a guy standing on the National Mall!” He laughs heartily at the retelling of it.

Seeing the long-term weathering effects in the sand from different places along a river – from high in a mountain to the river mouth – is remarkable. It’s the same composition, but as you would expect, the grains are smaller near the ocean.  “To see it for real makes geology more tangible than before.”

The complexity and variety of sand are surprising.  Brian no longer thinks of it as just silica anymore.

Hawaiian Sand
What we tend to think as sand; fine and pure.

Creating the collection has given Brian a goal or a purpose when visiting a new place to go on a little adventure and take pictures. He is more aware of his surroundings, and he has a more immersive experience than before he started collecting sand.  It’s a way of being more mindful.  It’s also an escape. It’s something Brian does just because he enjoys it.  “There’s no other reason, no external benefit.  I enjoy and learn from it, and it’s completely separate from my other responsibilities in life,” he revealed. We could all benefit from a hobby like that.

Advice for Aspiring Sand Collectors

Be aware of where you’re collecting the sand from.  “Some places have historical significance or are protected for wildlife or sensitive ecosystems.  You don’t want to be part of the damage to those things.”  Also, many places, like inland public beaches, have trucked in the sand.  If it’s not naturally occurring, then it’s not going to be reflective of the local geology.

Sand Collection
So much to learn from this tiny vial!


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7 Replies to “Searching for Silica: An Interview with the Curator of Ohio’s Largest Sand Collection”

  1. Shiela, Terrific blog about Brian’s sand. Have wondered what he has learned from it all and now I know. Since moving to Florida haven’t had the time when we visit to talk to him about extensively about sand so this is great. Thankls.

  2. So glad I finally found some time to check out this blog, Sheila. I had no idea my dear nephew was into this at all. So it was fun to learn more about sand and silica, but also the details of his cataloging and even his reason for getting so involved. As you have said, getting involved in something completely different than our work can be a good, healthy change of pace. I, too, always kind of wondered how on the few mystery shows I watch they seem to know from the dirt, or sand or vegetation where something occurred or where someone is/was, and now I understand that part too. As always, I keep learning from my wonderful family. Thanks!

    1. I’m glad to bring you a little bit of sun and surf through my blog. The colors you’re noticing is from the surface reflection. When underwater, the surface reflects what’s underneath it just like it reflects the clouds and the sky when you’re above water. Pretty cool, huh?

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