Orchestra performing

Book review: ‘Symphony in C’ by Robert Hazen

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The world of music provides this wide ranging review of carbon, an element we all take for granted, with a perfect metaphor.

2019 is the Geological Society’s Year of Carbon, so it makes sense that the occasion should be honoured with the publication of a book of popular science exclusively devoted to the subject. There’s no-one better qualified to supply it than Robert Hazen, whose ‘Symphony in C: Carbon and the Evolution of (Almost) Everything’ (William Collins, £20, ISBN 9780008292386) comes from the quill of a distinguished scientist and author of more than a dozen influential volumes on fundamental questions such as the origin of life, the nature of black holes and the geological history of planet Earth.

As he says early in the piece, if you have the print copy it will be almost entirely made of carbon-based molecular entities, from the paper and ink to the glue that binds it. If you have the e-book, you’ll be reading it in a silicon-based format that, along with aluminium drinks cans, is one of the few exceptions to Hazen’s assertion that “carbon is everywhere”.

As well as being a mineralogist and astrobiologist, Hazen (who has the biomineral Hazenite named after him), is also the front man of the Deep Carbon Observatory, a billion-dollar global scientific enterprise dedicated to finding out how much carbon our planet possesses. He puts this wide-ranging expertise into a ‘big picture’ narrative about something that we take for granted, if we think of it at all. It’s not enough for him to simply know that there’s lots of it (after all, there’s far more hydrogen), or that it plays a critical role in the complex evolution of the planet (so too oxygen, calcium, nitrogen). “If you want to find meaning and purpose in the vast cold and dark of the Universe, look to carbon.”

A leading light in carbon research, Hazen is also a lifelong classical musician and a stalwart of many North American symphony orchestras. This is where we get the extended musical metaphor from, which is as intellectually pleasing as it is helpful in arranging the ideas within the book. And the ideas need arranging too, because the scope of the book covers literally everything: from the formation and condition of Earth’s atmosphere to nanotechnology, from our blood and bones to the food that sustains us.

It is through his understanding of how the fabric of a grand-scale piece of classical music is woven with many threads that he is able to grasp both structurally and creatively how to present the complexities of the story of carbon. As with the great symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven, his composition is arranged in four movements, reflecting the Ancient Greek elements and the cornerstones of mediaeval alchemy: earth, air, fire and water. But ‘Symphony in C’ isn’t an alchemist’s dream. Rather it is a modern scientist’s vision, a biography of an element that is compelling, entertaining, informative and highly readable. Already one of the books of the year.

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