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The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat Hardcover – Bargain Price, June 24, 2008

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Hardcover, Bargain Price, June 24, 2008
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Editorial Reviews

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Carbon atoms lead active lives, as Roston’s investigation into their ubiquitous presence attests. Created by nuclear fusion in stars, strewn through space by supernovas, and collecting on earth as a critical element of life, carbon also exercises a variety of roles in technology. Its natural and artificial guises inspire Roston to balance chapters on carbon’s function in each realm, for example in defense (carbon in shells and Kevlar) or in combustion (carbon in metabolism and in fossil fuels). Such versatility derives from the carbon atom’s atomic structure and chemical behavior, the scientific elucidation of which engages Roston’s capacious curiosity, as it has that of the physicists, geologists, molecular biologists, and chemical engineers whose discoveries he describes. A science journalist, Roston mediates technicalities well for a general-interest reader, impressing in particular how carbon cycles geo- and biochemically through earth’s natural processes, and how the current increase of carbon dioxide is accelerating the atmospheric cycle. If atomic number 6 could ever write its autobiography, the result might resemble Roston’s engaging presentation. --Gilbert Taylor


“The story of carbon is our story, of course. It's an exciting journey—from cyanobacteria through the old and new gingko tree, to the intellectual wonder of organic synthesis, and our dangerous romance with the internal combustion engine. Eric Roston is a super storyteller!”—Roald Hoffmann, Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters at Cornell University and 1981 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry

“In order to understand the issue of climate change—or, for that matter, almost any issue relating to energy and life—it’s necessary to understand carbon. Fortunately, it’s an absolutely fascinating element, as Eric Roston shows in this delightful book. His narrative is a wonderful way to relish some basic science as well as understand some of the most profound policy issues we face.”—Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute and author of Einstein: His Life and Universe

“With delightful verve and zest, Roston explores the awesomely cornucopian roles of carbon, ranging from cosmic to cellular, from climate to cancer. He also makes a compelling case that human destiny and carbon are now inextricably coupled.”—Dudley Herschbach, 1986 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry

“If you thought oxygen was important, wait till you read this brilliantly researched tale of carbon, the element that makes possible diamonds, the ‘lead’ in your pencil, even ‘you’— and the element that is likely to occupy many headlines in the years ahead because we can’t live without it and we may not be able to live with it.”—Norm Augustine, former chairman and CEO, Lockheed Martin Corporation, and chairman of the study, Rising Above the Gathering Storm

“Carbon, the citizen king of elements, governs who we are and what life is—but the king is going mad! Citizens, revolt against the despots, or all may be lost!”—James E. Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

“A most accessible and thoroughly enjoyable way to gain real insight into a series of profoundly important subjects including, notably, the hellish risks we now face with climate change. I liked this book and plan to read it again.”—James Gustave Speth, dean of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and author of The Bridge at the Edge of the World

“Eric Roston provides an unparalleled tour of carbon’s role in life. This is a journey that every reader will find surprising and thoroughly enjoyable."—Richard A. Meserve, President of the Carnegie Institution for Science

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company; First Edition edition (June 24, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802715575
  • ASIN: B004JU1SDU
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 1.1 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,929,947 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 19 people found the following review helpful By K. Bailey on August 28, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is an insanely smart book. The author has done his homework - there is more research in each sentence than I've ever seen in any other book that I would actually read. One reviewer complained that the book was not deep enough. That person missed the point. The Carbon Age is about the breadth of carbon's influence in our world. The author dances from theoretical stovepipe to theoretical stovepipe - from the history of the Earth to the human genome to economics in the post-industrial age, drawing parallels on every level and uniting them all. The overarching themes that he pulls out are not just about carbon. Roston's ability to make sense out of a world of information, with sharp insight and subtle humor, is what sets this book apart.

More than the famed C element, this book is about the evolution of systems. That's why it's so useful. In each chapter, he broaches a new topic (first the creation of the Earth from galactic matter, then the origins of life on Earth, etc.) and provides an interesting history of how it all happened, how it all works. In every case, the system starts with a little thing - some space dust, a carbon molecule, a mutation in human physiognomy, an economic truism - and that little thing guides the development of something much bigger. The composition of somebody's DNA physically determines the shape and characteristics of the animal built around it. Teeny microorganism bodies build up on the ocean floor, gradually becoming a huge layer of carbon which we can tap for fuel zillions of years later. The variety, and yet the consistency, of all these factors sets the stage for us to finally understand our own human context.

And what a doozie.
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25 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Michael - An Avid Reader on June 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Carbon is everywhere. While many people have gone through life without realizing this basic fact, this captivating new book shows us why it is time to reconsider this position. Roston opens the door to the world of carbon - an element that impacts everything from global warming to your new bike. A former Time magazine reporter, Roston writes in an engaging, clear and accessible style carrying us from the beginning of the universe to today's debates around carbon emissions. This is a must-read for anyone looking to learn more about the universe and where it is going. Carbon ... who knew!?!
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By DMacKBlack on May 11, 2011
Format: Paperback
The writer has translated for "the rest of us" what scientists have been telling us in their opaque way: How the burning of carbon in the form of fossil fuels is distorting and accelerating what had been the normal progression of climate change throughout the earth's history. I challenge climate change deniers to read this book and hold to their position. For people concerned about climate change but not quite sure how and why it's happening -- why, precisely, carbon is at the heart of the problem -- this is the book for you. I heartily recommend it.
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15 of 23 people found the following review helpful By L. Byrne on July 3, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Understanding the carbon cycle and carbon's basic chemistry are vital to understanding global climate change and energy issues. I love learning about these issues. Thus, I was excited for this book. The title and back cover made it sound like it was going to be an engaging read. I was sorely disapointed. The writing and editing were just awful--shockingly awful. Adjacent paragraphs that don't belong together topically. Long random tangents throughout the book that the author fails to relate directly back to his thesis. (For example, in chapter 11 about biological fuels, a lot of information is discussed about basic genetics and the human genome project. Exactly why was never revealed and the chapter never presented in-depth info about biofuels.) The lack of a strong conclusion or forward-looking set of recommendations made the book end on a very unsatisfying note. These among other problems made for a less than spectacular read. I found myself skipping through big sections because I was so frustrated with the poor writing, both structurally and topically. One will obtain a better basic sense of the global carbon cycle from the Wikipedia entry than from this book. I don't recommend it in the least.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on November 14, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This discussion of the basic element carbon and its journey from prehistory to modern times surveys the science of carbon, its impact on the civilized world, and the ways mankind has used carbon over the centuries. Modern science blends with original research into history and technology to create an involving survey of one of the basic building blocks of life, a recommended pick for school science and general-interest libraries alike.
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful By noleander on December 3, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a unique book, sweeping in breadth. On the surface, it is a typical science book, but the author manages to add grandeur by giving it a historical perspective.

Historical in a couple of senses: First, charting the history of the earth, and second, delving into mankind's history and man's relation to Carbon.

The author's research was phenomenal, and on every page there is some provocative or interesting fact that is new (to me at least, and Im rather well read).

I do have a suggestion, and if the author ever publishes a 2nd edition, I seriously recommend it: The book could use one or two historical graphs showing trends over time. A picture is worth a thousand words, and if there is one message, one thought, that this book pronounces it is that there have been long-term, gradual changes in the earth's environment, and we need to understand those to survive and flourish. But words are not enough to convey that thought: I want a graph that shows some of the trends, not just the recent Kneeley curve of CO2 in the atmosphere, but the amount of O2 in the atmosphere. There was no O2 originally, then plants came along and pumped out O2, and animals were able to evolve, then they started exhaling CO2, etc. What is the long-term dynamics of plants/animals/O2/CO2?

In summary, this is an interesting, educational book. It does focus on global-warming near the end, but that is not the primary aim of the book, and one shouldn't dismiss it as "just another global warming book". I highly recommend this to anyone interested in science or the environment.
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