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Dust to dust
Wednesday 7 July 2004 9.00-9.30pm

Dust is composed of bits of detritus of all manner of things, but it's mostly bits of human skin. But there's also dust from the ice caps and four-million-year-old dust from space.

creation of solar system
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Quentin Cooper explores the universe through tiny dust particles and discovers what it can tell us about our past as well as our future.

Dust moves relentlessly: attack it and it scatters and evades you, but the moment your guard is down it silently regroups - on lampshades and ledges, in corners and crevices. It charges out at you from under your bed. No matter how often you shake a rage at it, dust always seems to have the upper hand.

That's just in your home. Imagine having to look after a larger place, such as a museum or a historic building. Cleaning takes a lot of time and money - the head of housekeeping at Historic Royal Palaces (the organisation that looks after five of Britain's royal buildings), reckons that it takes about 40 hours of cleaning every day to keep the dust at bay and it costs £131,000 a year. And cleaning precious exhibits can actually damage them.

At the National Museum of Denmark's analytical lab in Copenhagen, they're studying dust from 1000-year-old ships and learning an enormous amount about the people who lived and worked on the Viking ships.

The Earth is gathering more than 100 tons of space dust every day - each speck from an asteroid or shed by a comet might hold 100,000 smaller specks and, among those sub-specks, are the diamonds and sapphires, the inky-black carbon and rich organic molecules that date to the days of our planet's creation - and even earlier. The very oldest grains buried inside a piece of space dust can tell stories about the long-gone stars that produced them. By studying these interstellar dust particles we can learn about our cosmic roots.

Dust is blown all over the world. The soil in Bermuda, for example, contains dust from Africa. Living dust - skin flakes, clothing fibres, dust mites and worms are just some of the things we find in our household dust. But there are some areas of new technology that require a completely dust-free environment: silicone chip factories spend a fortune on equipment that ensures no dust can find its way into the latest computer.
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