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The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat Hardcover – June 24, 2008
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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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Roston does brings a chemistry perspective on things from the big bang to evolution to the auto.
When it comes to implications for our future due to greenhouse gases, it can be daunting and despairing; but that's the price for being informed.
Get it? Neither did I, my excuse being it's well over twenty years since I cracked open a chemistry textbook. A brief overview of the field at the outset might have helped, although the author being a journalist by trade would naturally be averse to anything that might impede the flow of the narrative.
Equally unhelpful was the general lack of illustrations -- not even a periodic table to show carbon in relation to its neighbors.
It's unfortunate, since I really wanted to learn something. I suspect the cover blurb tells it all, just not in the way the author intended. Roald Hoffmann, 1981 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, writes: "The story of carbon is an exciting journey and Eric Roston is a super storyteller!" In other words, go get yourself a Nobel Prize and you'll love this book.
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. When Roston gets to the part about modern humans, about the industrial revolution, about cars (how Daimler and Ford and Toyota have literally changed the world), it's mind-boggling. He shows how evolutionary principles merge with economic ones, with computer systems, with scientific research. He paints a big picture of how radically Earth's systems have changed in the last 150 years, something our limited lifespans have kept secret from us all this time. It's at once fascinating and terrifying. In a measured, apolitical way, Roston makes me fear for the future of my unborn children's planet. It's humbling to realize the unprecedented power that the human race exerts on our surroundings. And it's shameful how we have let our basest human nature have its way with them.
It makes me want to plant a tree. I'll talk to it, get rid of my own carbon dioxide, it'll photosynthesize it, and pure oxygen will come out. Hey, it's not much, but I've heard that big changes are built from little changes. It's worth a shot.
You should get this book.