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A Science News Favorite Book of 2019
An enchanting biography of the most resonant—and most necessary—chemical element on Earth.
Carbon is everywhere: in the paper of this book and the blood of our bodies. It’s with us from beginning to end, present in our baby clothes and coffin alike. We live on a carbon planet, and we are carbon life. No other element is so central to our well-being; yet, when missing or misaligned, carbon atoms can also bring about disease and even death. At once ubiquitous and mysterious, carbon holds the answers to some of humanity’s biggest questions. Where did Earth come from? What will ultimately become of it—and of us? With poetic storytelling, earth scientist Robert M. Hazen explores the universe to discover the past, present, and future of life’s most essential element.
We’re not only “made of star stuff,” as Carl Sagan famously observed, but “Big Bang stuff,” too. Hazen reveals that carbon’s grand symphony began with a frenzied prelude shortly after the dawn of creation, bringing new attention to the tiny number of Big Bang–created carbon atoms that often get overlooked. In minutes, violently colliding protons and neutrons improbably formed the first carbon atoms, which can still be found within our bodies. His book then unfolds in four movements, building momentum as he explores carbon as the element of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.
He visits the famed volcanic crater Solfatara di Pozzuoli near Naples, where venting carbon dioxide and other noxious fumes condense into beautiful crystals. He climbs the cliffs of the Scottish Highlands and delves deep into the precious-metal mines of Namibia, journeying toward Earth’s mysterious core in search of undocumented carbon structures.
Hazen often asks us to pause and consider carbon’s role in climate change and what we can do about it, for our lives and this element are inextricably intertwined. With prose that sparkles like a diamond, Symphony in C tells the story of carbon, in which we all have a part.
“Covering topics from carbon’s ancient origins to the threats that carbon compounds pose to our future climate, Hazen’s book is a fascinating read. Symphony in C chronicles cutting-edge science that’s helping researchers make better sense of the carbon-rich world around us.” — Science News
“From the Big Bang to coal, carbohydrates, and ultra-strong high-tech nanofibers, Robert M. Hazen provides an illuminating and enjoyable guide to the remarkable odyssey of carbon, the element of life. Enjoy the trip!” — Andrew Knoll, Fisher Professor of Natural History, Harvard University
“A valuable and welcome explanation of why we would do well to pay more attention to the sixth element—and of how much more remains to be discovered about its planetary role through time.” — Nature
“C is the element carbon. C is a musical note. Scientist-musician Hazen uses the element and the note to compose a symphonic masterpiece that reveals how the primitive life that began on our planet four billion years ago has evolved into Darwin’s ‘endless forms most beautiful.’” — David W. Deamer, author of Assembling Life
“Hazen’s virtuoso performance captures the wonder of the sixth element—from volcanic gases to al dente pasta to life’s very beginnings—while telling the wonderful stories about the people behind the discoveries.” — Terry Plank, Arthur D. Storke Memorial Professor of Geochemistry, Columbia University
“This book is an incredibly rich story of carbon and its role in of life. Hazen has outdone himself in delivering an engaging, edifying, great read. If you don’t know why carbon is important in your life, or even if you think you do, you should put down whatever you’re reading and get this book.” — Paul G. Falkowski, author of Life’s Engines