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Distributed for Reaktion Books

The Many Lives of Carbon

Translated by Kerri Pierce
In its pure form, carbon appears as the soft graphite of a pencil or as the sparkling diamond in a woman’s engagement ring. Underneath the surface, carbon is also the basic building block of the cells in our bodies and of all known life on earth. And at a molecular level, carbon bonds with oxygen to create carbon dioxide—a gas as vital to our life on this planet as it is detrimental at high levels in our atmosphere. As we face the climate change crisis, it’s now more important than ever to understand carbon and its life cycle.

The Many Lives of Carbon is the story of this all-important chemical element, labeled C on our periodic tables. It’s the story of balance—between photosynthesis and cell respiration, between building and burning, between life and death. Dag Olav Hessen is our guide as we discover carbon in minerals, rocks, wood, and rain forests. He explains how carbon is studied by scientists, as well as its role in the greenhouse effect, and, not least, the impact of manmade emissions. Hessen isn’t afraid to ask the difficult questions as he confronts us with the literally burning issue of climate change. How will ecosystems respond to global change, and how will this feed back into our climate systems? How bad could climate change be, and will our ecosystems recover? What are our moral obligations in the face of excess carbon production? Neither alarmist nor moralistic, Hessen takes readers on a journey from atom to planet in informative, compelling prose.

272 pages | 20 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2

Earth Sciences:

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“An imbalance in the carbon cycle threatens life on Earth. . . . 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.”


"'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."

Andrea Gawrylewski | Scientific American

"A book steeped in hard science and thus not motivated by emotion, alarmism, or the taking of sides. Hessen provides the type of insight that only a pure scientist can provide."

Matt Chester | Energy Collective

"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

"‘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."


“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, 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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