Symphony in C | Robert M. Hazen

Summary of: Symphony in C: Carbon and the Evolution of (Almost) Everything
By: Robert M. Hazen


In Symphony in C: Carbon and the Evolution of (Almost) Everything, Robert M. Hazen explores the fascinating journey of carbon, from the big bang to its key role in the formation of planets, minerals, and life on Earth. The book delves into Earth’s intricate carbon cycle, driven by chemical reactions, subduction, and volcanic activity, while highlighting the role of carbon in diverse applications such as steel, cement, glass, and fertilizers. Hazen also addresses the human impact on the carbon cycle and climate change due to the massive combustion of fossil fuels, and the indispensability of carbon for modern material culture.

The Carbon Story

The universe, after the Big Bang, was a hot whorl of matter and energy that cooled eventually allowing the formation of helium, hydrogen, and heavier elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon. Carbon, along with other heavier elements, was created by the immense heat and pressure produced by stars. Gradually, carbon became one of the most abundant elements in the universe and formed the first-ever crystals – diamonds and graphite. Most of Earth’s carbon-bearing compounds, including over 400 crystalline minerals, reside in its crust, including diamonds that only form in the high temperatures and pressure of the deep interior. Carbon plays a vital role not only in the formation of crystals and minerals but also in the production of steel, cement, glass, fertilizers, medicines, and jewelry.

The Origin and Cycle of Earth’s Carbon

Earth’s carbon originated from solar winds and meteorites, with methane and carbon dioxide holding most of it. Water and gases burst through the crust and formed oceans and air. Nitrogen was present in the early atmosphere, but others emerged later. The carbon cycle began with meteorites and violent volcanoes.

Earth’s history dates back to more than four billion years ago when it lacked an atmosphere. It was nothing more than arid rock and dust. But over time, Earth’s current composition of core, mantle, and crust started to develop. Iron and oxygen are the two mineral elements that comprise the largest portion of Earth’s mass. Carbon atoms played a crucial role in the formation of planets, but unlike iron and oxygen, carbon was mainly held in the form of molecules like methane and carbon dioxide.

Experts believe that Earth’s carbon was initially sourced from space, from solar winds and meteorites. As comets arrived, they brought with them carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and water which ultimately formed Earth’s oceans. The fluids found deep within the planet later burst through the rock layers, forming the oceans and gases that comprised Earth’s atmosphere. The nitrogen in today’s atmosphere has been present since the beginning, but it took billions of years for others to emerge. Meteorites and violent volcanoes contributed to the evolution of the Earth’s carbon cycle.

In conclusion, Earth’s carbon originated from space and holds a significant role in the development of the planet. The process of creating and replenishing the air was all part of the grand cycle of Earth.

Carbon’s Journey

Carbon constantly cycles through the Earth’s surface, oceans, atmosphere, crust, and mantle. Although more than 99.9% of Earth’s carbon is in the crust and mantle, only a small portion originates from the surface and moves deep into the mantle. Carbon, in the form of fluid, ultimately oozes back up through the soil or explodes out of volcanoes. Mount Etna is the world’s largest identifiable source of carbon dioxide, and volcanoes are likely nature’s largest contribution of carbon to the atmosphere. With the significance of human contribution, it’s essential to discover how much carbon volcanoes contribute.

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