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Carbon

Carbon is magic: there is no other word for it. Nothing except water even comes close.

We are among the more conscious of the extremely improbable sentient beings aboard this unlikely Goldilocks planet, on the fringes of a backwater galaxy at a time in the universe’s history when it is still possible to perceive its ever-expanding extent.

Even given its just-right size and makeup in the just-right orbit of a small middle-aged star that allows a temperature optimized for water’s rare property of high latent heat (which allows glaciers and oceans to coexist in different domains of the same sphere), if it lacked the magic of carbon, this would still be just a naked large round rough damp rock, albeit one with a nice warm tummy.

So carbon’s strategic position in the periodic table gives it the number and variety of connections with other elements which make biochemistry possible. The arithmetic of our accounting for this extraordinary diversity is now to the point where an ordinary person sufficiently interested can find it comprehensible, at least in outline. The unity underlying the diversity of living structures is a commonsense analog extension of our ordinary human passion for building and modifying large and complex things.

But when we try to understand process, for most of us it starts to get hazy. First, the critical unitary level for process is biochemical, taking place ordinarily in sub-cellular structures of nanotechnology scale. Like the pioneer anatomists and their grave-robbers of old, we can only infer the nature of these minute entities from slices of their dead remains (now under the electron microscope rather than the mediaeval barber’s razor) and our less-remote observations of the interactivity of much larger living cells. Even to grasp the different scale of this universe requires a vivid enough conceptual grasp of exponents that the drama of the Angstrom unit (1/10 000 000 000 meters) and Avogadro’s number (6-point something times a 1 with 23 zeroes after it) have real meaning*.

This nanoverse is a very different place from the one we evolved to function in. People were always curious about the stars, because we can see them. In the right cultural setting (long in coming, and at horrifying risk to the pioneers) it was inevitable that we would explore this curiosity further. But before the telescope revealed Jupiter’s moons and the microscope showed us the cell, we capped enquiry by inventing fantasy-fiction universes where unaccountable deities and evil spirits sported with our fate–above us beyond a vast crystal sphere and beneath us in fiery caverns. Sadly, for too many of our 7 billion, those deranged fantasy fury-verses still seem more credible than the ones revealed by our instruments and careful cross-checking.

So to picture living process is an intentional act of the guided imagination, a virtual multimedia analog of the museum dioramas used to illustrate the environment of the dinosaurs. But the multiscalar complexity of biomolecular reactions are even more difficult to feel as reality than is geological time without an unusual experience of the perishability of rocks. So if a detailed description of the chemical and electronic transformations which make up photosynthesis and respiration are insufferably dense to the unprepared, the extraordinary potency of chemical messangers such as hormones and neurotransmitters is a concept somewhere out beyond the celestial sphere for most of us.

So the idea that the rise in atmospheric CO2 from 275 to near 400 parts per million (brought about by the plow and the industrial revolution) is likely to bring about an extinction to rival the world’s worst, the Permian, has a hard time overcoming the expensively-wrought comfort-stories fabricated by the carbon lobby and their busy agents, the people who worked so hard to hydrolyze the link between cigarettes and lung cancer.

 

*The Angstrom unit is the customary measure for size at the atomic level. I think of it as a 1mm cube of sand magnified to 10 000 km or 6200 miles, about twice the distance from here to New York. At which point the molecules of silica would appear slightly larger than the original grain of sand. While I can sort of picture it, it’s very hard to believe.
(This difficulty does give me a twinge of empathy for people whose social identity requires them to believe that the earth, its beautiful green skin and celestial adornment were all created during a busy week in the fall of 4004 BC by an invisible and rather capricious greybeard).
Avogadro’s number is how many molcules make up 12 grams of carbon (less than a third of an ounce) or 2 grams of hydrogen–a concept related to atomic and molecular weight.

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