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216 × 138 mm
272 pages
20 illustrations
20 Nov 2017

The Many Lives of Carbon Dag Olav Hessen

In its pure form carbon can be the soft graphite in a pencil or an immensely hard diamond. It is the basic building block of most of the cells in our bodies. Carbon attracts, and one of the most crucial relationships it forms is with oxygen, producing carbon dioxide, the gas vital to life on earth. This is the story of a chemical element, C, its myriad properties and its life cycle. It is the story of a balance between photosynthesis and cell respiration, between building and burning, life and death.

Dag Olav Hessen navigates us through an exploration of the existence of carbon in minerals and rocks, wood and rainforests, and of carbon’s role in processes such as the greenhouse effect and the carbon cycles, on both small and large scales. He explores the burning issues of climate change: how will ecosystems respond to global change? How bad could things get? Will the world’s ecosystems recover? And what are our moral obligations? Neither alarmist nor moralistic, Hessen takes the reader on a journey from the atom to our planet in informative, compelling prose.

‘Hessen’s knowledge on the subject is evident, and at times, particularly towards the end, his balanced and clearly worded warnings about climate change really do make you sit back and think about the way you are living. His genuine desire to educate people on carbon’s role in our lives is clear.’ – Chemistry World

‘“Carbon, life’s element, has become our greatest threat,” writes Hessen, a biologist who studies the life cycle of carbon. He profiles the many vital contributions the element makes to human life and gives a fascinating explanation of how its structure renders it so useful in diverse materials and situations, from fire to photosynthesis. Hessen also describes how carbon’s chemistry turns it into such a menace to our climate by trapping heat via the greenhouse effect, and he eloquently highlights the need to use our carbon wisely, lest we irreversibly disrupt the delicate balance it has enjoyed on our globe for the past 4.5 billion years.’ – Scientific American

‘In his new book, Hessen describes in great detail how carbon cycles work, starting with a history of how the earth was formed and life began. His story ends with close examination of our modern ways of living – and their heavy carbon footprints . . . [a] timely science
book.’ – Booklist

‘I didn’t realize we were carbon,’ said a friend to whom I mentioned this book. She was the first of several. It’s odd to think of clever and educated people not knowing that we are made of such stuff. But The Many Lives of Carbon is an odd book to come to grips with. Its title promises plain speaking about carbon, which the book then delivers. Nothing to lose sleep over. Yet one does . . . Hessen subtly lays out his treatise on this, the only element to have an entire branch of chemistry devoted to its exploits . . . That he has pitched his text to require a bit of work by the non-specialist is a good call. That cognitive load will clarify this tricky but compelling exposition far better than any microwaveable polemic. But be prepared to lose a little sleep puzzling out. And then rather more sleep thinking about his conclusions.’  – The Spectator

‘Without succumbing to alarmist tones or preachiness, Hessen successfully paints a comprehensive picture of the ever-present carbon that allows for powerful discussion of the current state of the energy sector, the climate, and the globalized view of what needs to be accomplished in the coming decades to ensure preservation of the environment and our way of life. In the end, he advocates for responsible action, noting that “the question is how much of an alarmist you want to be, but it would be quite irresponsible for a doctor who, upon discovering a potentially fatal tumor, to fail to inform the patient.”’  – TheEnergyCollective.com

‘This is a brilliant and deep journey into the science, history, and indeed the morality of the Periodic Table’s sixth element, carbon. An accomplished scientist and a masterful storyteller, Dag Hessen takes us from the elegance of the Koh-i-Noor diamond to the putrescence of cow flatulence, explaining the science behind carbon’s connection to our bodies (we are 40% C, once water is removed) and to our future given its ongoing impact on global climate. Hessen has a particular knack for explaining chemical concepts clearly and illustrating chemical transformations, all while weaving seamlessly between the physics of atoms, the geology of Earth’s crust, and the biology of organic molecules. Readers will enjoy the journey while also gaining some philosophical and ethical perspective on the tradeoffs and complexities that are involved as humanity struggles to decarbonize.  Carbon – you thought you knew it?  Think again and read this book.’  – Jim Elser, Bierman Professor of Ecology, University of Montana

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Dag Olav Hessen is Professor of Biology at the University of Oslo, and the author of many popular science books and scientific papers on ecology and evolution.