Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Plain old carbon

As plain as soot, as plain as the lead in a pencil. And old -- as old as fire, as old as the charcoal cave drawings of our Cro-Magnon ancestors. Carbon was one of the first elements to be utilized by humans in a pure form.

Plain and old, but hardly dull.

Of the 92 elements that make up the natural world, carbon is the most prolific when it comes to making molecules. Chemical compounds based on carbon outnumber the compounds of all other elements put together. We divide chemistry into two branches: organic chemistry (the chemistry of carbon compounds), and inorganic chemistry (the chemistry of everything else).

Carbon is special because of its ability to make links with itself. Chains and rings of carbon are at the heart of almost everything interesting in the natural world -- sex hormones, stimulant drugs, painkillers, tranquilizers, gasoline, plastics, dyes, soaps and detergents, artificial fibers, explosives, the pigments of fruits, the scents of flowers -- the list is endless.

Most importantly, carbon is the element of life. Every living thing is composed of carbon compounds.

Follow a typical journey of a carbon atom:

A candle burns, releasing carbon atoms. Some of the atoms link in pairs to make soot. Others combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, and drift away in the air. A flowering plant steals carbon dioxide from the air, and with sunlight makes glucose (sugar), by that wonderful process known as photosynthesis. The flower's sweet nectar attracts a bee. The bee makes wax. From the wax, a candle is made. The candle burns.

And so it goes, as carbon atoms cycle from place to place, stirring and animating the surface of the planet. Carbon -- plain old carbon, forged in the cores of dying stars, blasted into space in supernovas, the stuff of flesh and blood, God's favorite Tinker Toy.

Today we translocate, back to New England from the sunny Bahamas, hopefully as the daffodils bloom. I can't predict what will appear here for the next several days. Thank you for your faithful company on the porch.