Roston: The Carbon Age

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Eric Roston, The Carbon Age : How Life's Core Element has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat. New York : Walker & Company, 2008. 308 pages, with notes, bibliography, and index; illustrated.

The "note about the author" describes Mr. Roston as a "journalist and science writer", and says that this is his first book. He's done a very good job with it, and I mention his professional identification because he writes as a nonscientist but his scienticity and hermeneutics is very good. He manages a crisp precision in his explanations of science that I imagine comes from an enthusiasm for his subject and from looking hard at his sources and working hard at getting his own understanding precise.

"Carbon" is the motif and unifying theme for the book. Books with broad themes like this seem currently popular, but not so many manage to stay near the theme and leave the reader feeling that her understanding of all things theme-concerned has really deepened and unified into a coherent big picture. The Carbon Age meets that challenge.

So, carbon makes up just three ten-thousandths of 4.4 percent of the Universe. That doesn't sound like a very promising starting place. Yet it must be. Carbon appears in 90 percent of molecule types detected between stars. Sine the late 1960s, astronomers have spotted energy signatures of more than 130 kinds of molecules in the dense clouds, such as the Orion nebula, about 1,600 light-years away from the Earth, and Sagittarius B2, near the Galaxy's center. Experimentalists reproduce these signals in simulated conditions in laboratories to make sure radio telescope readings are matched to the right molecules. Some of these molecules are familiar enough on Earth. For example, there may be enough ethyl alcohol in a dense cloud to fill one hundred shots of vodka each the size of Earth. [pp. 22—23]

He divides the book into two parts, called "The Natural", how carbon is used in places and situations that arise in nature, and "The Unnatural", discussing topics related to human invention and exploitation of hydrocarbons, or petroleum products. From the author's "Prologue":

In our carbon age, economic activity has collapsed geological time into a human life span. The first half of this book explores the origins of carbon and life, and cases in which evolutionary innovations redirected how carbon cycles through the atmosphere, oceans, and land. The second half covers just the last 150 years, and explains how scientists, industrialists, and consumers created what amounts to an industrial carbon cycle—the flushing of millions of years of geological sediment back into the atmosphere. The six chapters of part II mirror chapters in part I, as a way to compare how evolution and human technology address similar problems, technology's place within evolution, and a way to demonstrate something fundamental about how this world of carbon works. [p. 7]

For me the first part was somewhat more invigorating, but I put that down to my personal taste since the research and exposition were uniformly good throughout. In this excerpt he includes interesting facts, interesting history, and interesting observations about the way science operates.

Orderly scientific narratives, such as this tale of the prehistory of carbon, grow by accretion, over many decades, as hypotheses compete for attention and scientists hunt for evidence to support them. Scientists are people. They have biases, career pressures, and make errors. but science, as a global, centuries-old enterprise, is supposed to eliminate individual biases and correct errors, creating a self-doubting, often contentious, accretive body of work based on physical evidence and critical reasoning. Over time, the professional community separates promising ideas from ones unsupported by evidence.

Sometimes professionals become waylaid. In 1900, some physicists felt they were running out of problems to solve, even though no one knew how the sun shines. They knew how it didn't shine. If the Sun burned like a candle, its fuel would have vanished shortly after its birth—very shortly. No practical amount of combustion can match stellar nuclear fusion. A million billion tons of coal shoveled into a furnace would keep pace with the Sun's power for little more than a second. That much coal, if it existed, could theoretically fuel an economy equal in size to that of the United States for 1.5 million years. [p. 15]

The scienticity – that quality of an author's writing that demonstrates her willingness to notice and seize a learning moment for science, that describes how much a scientific perspective pervades the writing—of this book is very high. As just one example, here is a footnote that took an opportunity to engage naysayers when the author mentioned the scientifically undisputed age of the Earth, a consensus whose arguments run deep into many scientific disciplines.

Belief that the Earth is only several thousand years old carries a curious implication. The physical evidence for the Earth's age emerged from the same atomic discoveries that later gave the world nuclear weaponry and power plants. The scientific understanding of uranium isotopes that produce the date 4.5 billion years ago is the same understanding of uranium isotopes that led to the production and detonation of nuclear bombs. If scientists do not understand uranium decay well enough to date the Earth, there also cannot be, and can never have been, nuclear weaponry. Certainly a world and a history absent these weapons are desirable, but they are counterfactual. [p. 237, note 7]

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the many ideas that the author draws into his wide-ranging discussion of carbon, like the idea that such very, very small things like cyanobacteria, in unimaginably large numbers, over unimaginably long times, could transform the atmosphere of the Earth from its hostile, primordial composition to the oxygen-rich atmosphere we've evolved to inhabit. It's nature's technique for "teraforming", a popular concept in science fiction.

Very small things evolved from other very small things more than 2.7 billion years ago. That's not surprising. Microbes mutate and swap genes all the time. That's how bacteria become immune to antibiotics. What's surprising is that these very small things, called cyanobacteria, thrived in such numbers that their waste destabilized the Earth's ancient carbon cycle over several hundred million years. Scientists have long tried to sketch out the early evolution of these tiny organisms, with novel insights in recent years.

Of the untold millions of species that have lived and died since life emerged, cyanobacteria stand out as organisms of superlative influence. They invented photosynthesis as we know it—making carbohydrates with sunlight, CO2, and water, while emitting molecular oxygen (O2) as waste. Sometimes called "blue-green algae," they are no more algae than seahorses are horses. Other kinds of photosynthesis existed before then, and still do, but none used water as a source of electrons and protons needed to help cook the carbon dioxide into sugar, and none pumped out oxygen in the process. [p. 72]

By the end of the book Mr. Roston has worked his way around to discussing anthropogenic (i.e,. "man-made") climate change, but it does not seem like the point of the book; rather, it is the current end-point of the story he was writing. I also felt that the earlier parts of the book, talking about the genesis of carbon atoms in stars, possible origins of carbon-based life, algae and trees and how they transformed the early atmosphere of the Earth, our planet's very long time-scale carbon cycles (e.g., storing carbon-dioxide in rocks), and how the human body is fueled by hydrocarbons (carbohydrates), all added to understanding a bigger picture and building a valuable context for all our current social conversation about carbon footprints and other complex, carbon-related topics.

In this final excerpt, he draws together some deep insights about how science progresses and enhances our knowledge of the natural world through tools and instruments that enhance our perceptions of that world.

Humans cannot detect changes in atmospheric trace gas composition on their own. Yet it is simple to measure CO2 and temperature changes with the right instrumentation. This speaks more to a more general principle in science itself. Our bodies perceive reality inadequately. Humans cannot see things smaller than the width of a hair two arms lengths away, cannot walk farther than perhaps twenty miles a day; we blink in about a third of a second, and we live about eighty years. Everything smaller than a hair, longer than twenty miles, occurring more quickly than a blink and longer than a lifetime falls outside the range of experience and emerges as a candidate for scientific inquiry. Without visual corroboration of atmospheric change, it is hard for many people to swallow results published in scientific journals. The invisibility of carbon dioxide emissions to the naked eye itself is part of the reason it has been so easy for deniers to confuse the public about dangerous man-made global warming for more than twenty years. [p. 172]

Over all I thought the author's research, his organization of his material, and his presentation of ideas was good metascienticity, which is to say that he approached the writing of his book with an admirably scientific stance. All that and fun to read, too!

-- Notes by JNS

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