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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Review: Symphony in C

Symphony in C is Robert Hazen's book about everybody's favorite element, Carbon.  Far from a dry recounting of its properties, Hazen describes not just the creation of carbon in the hearts of stars and its unique place in the periodic table, but the evolution of earth's deep carbon cycle.

Interesting stories include:

  • The great oxygenation event affected not just the biosphere, but also minerals, as minerals reacted with the oxygen that was in the air and changed their properties.
  • Coal is formed during the several hundred million years in which nothing could digest cellulose. Once fungi learned to digest cellulose, trees dying no longer made coal. That's why there's a limited amount of coal in the ground.
  • Life on earth will continue despite humans killing themselves by making the climate too hot for primates to survive. The majority of the biosphere are made out of single-cell microbes, and those will do just fine in the absence of humans.
  •  Carbon dating is only useful for dating items in the near past (50K years or so). Once past that, the limits to our C-14 counting methods means that we don't have accuracy any more. Furthermore, modern changes to the atmosphere (from atomic explosions to the dramatic increase in C-12 content created by our burning fossil fuels) means that future generations might not be able to easily use carbon dating to date objects from our era.
There's much more other stuff, including a discussion of various theories of how the first single-celled creatures created, to the creation of Eukaryotes. It's mostly good, though Hazen is all too fond of his "symphony" metaphor and tries to use music terminology throughout, which was annoying at times.

Nevertheless, good stuff and well worth the easy listening (I listened to the audio book edition).


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