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Eulogy to an element


Carbon’s colourful rise to infamy has been something of an underreported story, at least until now. Swamped by innumerable accounts of its current status as public enemy number one, it’s easy to forget that this element has a rather glorious past and present.

Former Time magazine reporter Eric Roston chronicles the story of carbon and its significance in the wider universe in his first book ‘The Age of Carbon’, which Mark Lynas reviews over on Nature Reports Climate Change.

Lynas, who has just recently been awarded the 2008 Royal Society Prize for Science Books, calls Roston’s book “a welcome slew of context for the humdrum daily dose of ‘low-carbon this, high-carbon that’ now peppering the newspapers”.

From its origins as the ash of helium fusion, carbon takes on a starring role in the story of life on Earth, adopting a variety of forms both by itself and in combination with other elements. Roston details its role in the evolution of the most primitive life forms on Earth right through to the appearance of the (as Lynas writes) “hubristically self-named Homo sapiens, then the internal combustion engine and other paraphernalia of the Industrial Revolution, turning up the planetary thermostat in the blink of a geological eye”.

As well as giving a chronological account of carbon, Roston also goes off on some rather specific tangents – such a whole discursive chapter on the gingko tree – at times in great detail and at the expense of holding the narrative, says Lynas, who also commends its “wide-ranging, interdisciplinary approach”.

You can access the full review over here.


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