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A scientist's ode to carbon

In his latest book, Robert Hazen explains why number six on the periodic table has it in for us, and other fascinating facts.

Think ancient carbon and diamonds might come to mind, or a lump of coal and the carbon dioxide it emits when burnt. Unless you’re a geologist, you’re probably less likely to imagine limestone or dolomite, the largest repositories of carbon in Earth’s crust, or the millions of carbon-containing organic compounds. Robert Hazen’s Symphony in C: Carbon and the Evolution of (Almost) Everything is the story of carbon in all its permutations and never-ending cycles: from rocks to the ocean, the atmosphere and, ultimately, all life forms.

Hazen is an engaging storyteller and this is a personal narrative. His love of music inspired the book’s symphonic form of four classical movements: earth, air, fire and water. As the head of the Deep Carbon Observatory, an international project that investigates how carbon moves between the Earth’s core and its surface, he brings impressive depth to the earth chapters. Here, it is clear that he has participated in most of the experiments and discoveries he describes, and knows the people involved.

Later chapters feel retold from knowledge rather than direct experience, but they are equally passionate and readable, despite an extravagant use of adjectives. In the air chapters, Hazen is forceful in stressing that fossil-fuel burning emits a thousand times more carbon dioxide than all the world’s volcanoes combined. He lambasts humanity for conducting a geoengineering experiment on an unprecedented scale and without a safety net, but then, frustratingly, he repeatedly downplays that message in a way that only geologists who take a very long-term view of planetary forces can.

The fire chapters deliver an eye-opening inventory of the countless ways we rely on carbon to fuel economies, while the water chapters could stand alone as an exposition of what we’ve gleaned so far about the moment when life began.

Hazen writes with generosity, sharing rather than lecturing. If you read anything about the elements during this International Year of the Periodic Table, make it about carbon.

SYMPHONY IN C: Carbon and the Evolution of (Almost) Everything, by Robert Hazen (Harper Collins, $39.99)

This article was first published in the September 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.