SandMichael Welland is a geologist who has worked around the world in the energy industry. He is a fellow of the Geological Societies of America and London and the Royal Society for the Arts and Commerce. Welland is also the author of Sand: The Never-Ending Story (UC Press, December 2008). For more information about sand and to read more of his posts, please visit his blog, Through the Sand Glass.

Pundits, Soothsayers, Prognosticators – and Lines in the Sand

By Michael Welland

Listening to, reading, watching, googling the news these days is a mindboggling task. It seems that, much of the time, we must put aside the ongoing stories of man’s barbarism to man, and focus on the global economic crisis, the remarkably sudden inability of banks to do what they always said that they were good at (The Economist recently referred to the “hallucinogenic chaos of world finance”). And, regardless of your location, or the medium through which you monitor the news, they are there in their multitudes and all their glory – the pundits. It’s great business for them.

Not that they ever predicted the current events, but, now that these have eventuated, they have much to say. One has to question whether any of it is any more worth listening to, or taking seriously, than anything they did or didn’t say yesterday, a month ago, six months or a year ago. As a species we have many failings, one of which is that we think we know more than we do, and the second of which (related) is the belief that yesterday somehow or another informs us about tomorrow. In the immortal words of John McEnroe, commenting on Wimbledon tennis a few years ago, “It’s been predictable, in the sense ‘expect the unexpected’.” Or Hobbs, of Calvin and Hobbs, “The trouble with the future is that it keeps turning into the present.” Or, perhaps with deep resonance in today’s world, Albert Einstein, who observed that “the significant problems which we face will not be solved by the same level of thinking which created them.”

This, I will be the first to admit, is a favorite fulmination of mine, and touches on my fascination with uncertainty and how we deal with it. But what does it have to do with sand? Well, first of all, in my last post, I commented that watching sand fall through an hourglass is not only a therapeutic activity, but a lesson in fundamental physics; a pile of sand seems like one of the simplest things – grains fall, the pile grows, the sides slip and avalanche. But predicting the avalanches is impossible. So, if this is too much for us, why do we cling to the belief that we can predict the dynamics of the world’s stockmarkets, the price of oil, or the sales of anniversary Barbie dolls.

Perhaps we might as well resort to the age-old methods of divination in the sand. Geomancy, the art of divination, is a word that derives from the translation of the Arabic term ilm al-raml, the science of the sand. In a wide variety of cultures, sand has been a medium for telling the future. A shallow bowl of sand can be used, the surface smoothed; the person whose fortune is to be told makes shapes and patterns in the sand, the expert interpretation of which defines his or her future. Alternatively, the edge of the bowl can be tapped with a stick and the resulting patterns—vibrated granular materials again—can be interpreted.

In original Arabic geomancy, the diviner used and developed dots drawn in the sand on a board—or simply in the desert—by the person seeking advice. A twelfth-century automated interpreter, a beautifully ornate brass mechanical “calculator” from Damascus, was created to facilitate interpretation of the patterns. The Arabs brought the art of geomancy to Africa, and the tradition continues. Today, complex patterns of lines and dots in the sand are used to answer questions and divine the future. In the Dogon culture of Mali, the priest sets out an elaborate pattern of drawings, lines, and piles of sand, and invokes the sacred fox to visit during the night. If the fox obliges, the pattern of its tracks around the priest’s arrangement is interpreted.

In certain forms of Taoism, divination is accomplished by using sand as the medium in which spirits and deities write. Fine white sand in a large sand tray is smoothed and preparatory rituals are completed. The expert medium enters into a trance, takes a stick, and begins the incantation to seek assistance. If the incantation is successful, the thoughts of the spirit are transferred through the medium and the stick into sand writing. The words and symbols are continually recorded and the sand resmoothed so as not to interrupt the procedure. Should this be a technique for investment analysts?

And then there are the lines in the sand (was the original one drawn at the Alamo?). Just google the phrase in the news, and you will find that all the players, from the financial authorities to the auto makers, via our respective (and, of course, respected) elected representatives, are emphatically drawing lines in the sand. What they must not do, of course, is stick their heads in the stuff (which, by the way, ostriches do not do).