THE CARBON EPIPHANY

the lethal text

Rainforest

Whirl up, sea —

whirl your pointed pines,

splash your great pines on our rocks,

hurl your green over us,

cover us with your pools of fir.

(Oread, by H. D.)

Carbon is the element of life, common to all known life-forms. Its unique and astonishing properties make life possible. With four electrons available for covalent bonding, carbon forms a unique diversity of complex organic compounds, with more than ten million described to date; and yet that figure is only a tiny fraction of those theoretically possible. Carbon has an unusual ability to form polymers — macromolecules with repeating sequences, such as DNA — at temperatures experienced on earth. Carbon’s physical properties vary widely according to the allotropic form it takes, forms as distinct as graphene and diamond: soft and hard; opaque and transparent; conductive and insulating. Carbon will not ionise under any except implausibly extreme conditions. Its allotropes are thermally…

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