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Carbon-The Kernel of Life

 Life is a miracle. That it evolved on our planet is another. The profusion of myriad forms in which it exists on our planet is mind boggling. Mired in the business of living, we seldom reflect on life, except when a fleeting thought flashes across the mindscape like a meteor. But on rare occasions, existential dilemma grips us. Then we wade into books, trying to make sense of it. More often than not, we hit a brick wall. Religion, with its standard prescriptions does not offer any explanation except divine creation. Science is a labyrinth in which one easily gets lost. Philosophy has built impenetrable citadels of unfathomable ideas to escape from enquiry.

But occasionally one comes across passages which provide unexpected insights. The following excerpt on carbon, from the book LILA by Robert M Pirsig is one such.

The chemistry of life is the chemistry of carbon. What distinguishes all the species of plants and animals is, in the final analysis, differences in the way carbon atoms choose to bond.

All life contains carbon yet a study of properties of carbon atom shows that except for the extreme hardness of one of its crystalline forms there is not much unusual about it. In terms of other physical constants of melting point, conductivity, ionization, and so on, it does just about what its position on the periodic table of the elements suggests it might do. Certainly there’s no hint of any miraculous powers waiting to spring chemistry professors upon a lifeless planet.

One physical characteristic that makes carbon unique is that it is the lightest and most active of the group IV of atoms whose chemical bonding characteristics are ambiguous. Usually the positively valenced metals in groups I through III combine chemically with negatively valenced non-metals in groups V through VII and not with other members of their own group. But the group containing carbon is halfway between the metals and non-metals, so that sometimes carbon combines with metals and sometimes with non-metals, and sometimes it just sits there and doesn’t combine with anything, and sometimes it combines with itself in long chains and branched trees and rings.

Carbon bonding was a balanced mechanism they could take over. It was a vehicle they could steer to all sorts of freedom by selecting first one bonding preference and then another in an almost unlimited variety of ways.

And what a variety has been chosen. Today there are more than two million known compounds of carbon, roughly twenty times as many as all the other known chemical compounds in the world.

 carbon 1Today, a world without carbon is unimaginable. Our “bond” with carbon is intimate, to say the least. Most things we consider indispensable, the fuel we burn, the plastics we use, all comprise of carbon in one form or another. Diamond, the most coveted precious stone is a form of carbon. The amount of work universe had to do to generate carbon atoms and then scatter them sufficiently in star systems so as to engender life is stupendous. Here is how Dr. Paul Davies described it in The Mind of God.

 While investigating the nuclear reactions that lead to the formation of carbon in the stellar cores, [Fred] Hoyle was struck by the fact that the key reaction proceeds only because of a lucky fluke. Carbon nuclei are made by a rather tricky process involving the simultaneous encounter of three high-speed helium nuclei, which then stick together. Because of the rarity of triple-nucleus encounters, the reaction can proceed at a significant rate only at certain well-defined energies (termed “resonances”), where the reaction rate is substantially amplified by quantum effects. By good fortune, one of these resonances is positioned just about right to correspond to the sort of energies that helium nuclei have inside large stars.

Where scientists found inscrutability, Neo-Spiritualists discerned divinity, and ascribed cosmic significance to the structure of carbon atom (Link). Unaware of all this, the carbon atom continued to perform its material and spiritual duties diligently until we chose to discredit it. Carbon was accused of causing climate change and global warming.

While we routinely bandy about carbon trading, carbon emissions, carbon footprint and black carbon little do we realize that it is the basic building block of life. The breath of life has developed into intelligent beings thanks to the versatility of a providential atom. Our sense of awe and respect would return once we ponder over the timeless, torturous path life has taken to turn an inanimate atom into animated spirit.


Categories: Musings
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  1. May 18, 2010 at 4:46 pm

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