The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat

  • Eric Roston
Walker & Company: 2008. 304 pp. $25.99 9780802715579 | ISBN: 978-0-8027-1557-9

Eric Roston is a journalist and science writer who covered the 9/11 attacks as a reporter for Time magazine. In his fascinating book The Carbon Age, Roston weaves together the story of the element carbon, mining his facts largely from electronic research databases, particularly Google Scholar. Providing for the layman the 'connective tissue' of a vast array of subdisciplines — encompassing anthropology, astrophysics, biotechnology, genetics, geology, mathematics, nuclear synthesis, nucleic acids, nanotechnology, palaeobotany, phylogeny and more — this US-centric monograph is a success, especially in dealing with climate change.

Roston's approach calls to mind the Christmas lectures given by Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1848–49, and again in 1860–61, entitled “The Chemical History of a Candle”. Faraday used the candle example as a door opening onto many other areas of science: “so wonderful are the varieties of outlet which it offers into the various departments of philosophy. There is not a law under which any part of this Universe is governed which does not come into play, and is touched upon in these phenomena.”

Carbon dioxide concentrations must drop if natural disasters caused by climate change are to be prevented. Credit: D. SEWELL/PANOS

Carbon, rather than a candle, takes centre stage in Roston's attentions: its creation by nuclear synthesis in the stars, its assimilation by our planet, the generation of carbon dioxide and myriad other phenomena. Through a better understanding of these processes, he argues, we may comprehend the nature of the Universe we inhabit and find clues to overcome the problems that humans have created that bring us to the brink of global crisis.

Roston's fluent writing can be pleasing, no more so than in the chapters entitled 'CO2 and the Tree of Life' and 'The Potential of Biological Fuels', and in his prologue. He deals lyrically with the chemical systems of the ginkgo tree, the living symbol of survival through extremes of conditions and time. However, the book contains too many US slang terms, such as “gazillions”, and the text is replete with anthropomorphisms, such as “the enmity between hydrogen molecules and helium atoms”. There are some oversimplifications — it is surely better to describe isotopes in the conventional manner rather than to say misleadingly that “the sum of protons and neutrons are called isotopes”.

Yet The Carbon Age makes a compelling case concerning solutions to the problems of climate change. “Industry needs to find a way to live inside the biosphere,” Roston writes. “Scientists are only beginning to understand biochemistry enough to find possible answers to our energy and climate crises within it.” He also summarizes well the beautiful work of Frances Arnold at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, on the directed Darwinian evolution of proteins and carbohydrates, in which she is finding ways to convert cellulose efficiently into the biofuel, butanol.

Roston has an eye for historical perspective, as when he quotes from the evocative 1995 novel The Rings of Saturn, in which German émigré author W. G. Sebald visits the United Kingdom and asks how its forests, particularly at Dunwich in Suffolk, have been ravaged owing to man's preoccupation with burning. “From the earliest times, human civilisation has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hours, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away”, Sebald ponders. “For the time being, our cities still shine through the night, and the fires still spread.” These words prompt Roston to declare that “we as individuals and as a society, as nations and as species are deciding that our lifestyle is more important than its continuity”.

Vivid and important passages pertaining to colourful or pioneering individuals, notably the astronomer Fred Hoyle, are well presented. In retrospect, it is clear that Hoyle should have shared the Nobel prize in physics with William A. Fowler for his contribution to the synthesis of elemental carbon from the fusion of three helium nuclei. As well as Faraday, Roston highlights lesser known, loner scientists, such as Guy S. Callender, who realized in 1938 what was later confirmed by and credited to Charles Keeling in 1955 — that man-made CO2 contributes to global warming. Although Roston mentions the important work on greenhouse gases by Svante Arrhenius in 1896 and John Tyndall in 1860, he does not discuss Joseph Fourier's pioneering studies in 1827.

Roston states the oft-repeated but erroneous claim that the 1985 study of carbon-60, or buckminsterfullerene, became “a founding moment for the nanotechnology movement”. Not so. The contributions of Richard Feynman in 1958, Norio Taniguchi in 1974, Eric Drexler in the 1980s, and the coming of cluster science and new microscopic techniques all lay greater and prior claim. In the petrochemical industry, for example, supported nanocatalysts consisting of just a few atoms of platinum were used industrially 15 years before the carbon-60 frenzy. Even the advocacy of nanotechnology by former US president Bill Clinton takes higher priority, in influence, than buckminsterfullerene in the pervasive talk of the nanoworld.

The Carbon Age contains some minor infelicities, yet its many fine attributes win out: it is teeming with unexpected information and is a grand tour of the Universe.