Dag Olav Hessen 2017. - The Many Lives of Carbon London: Reaktion Books, 261 pp.

A book about the role of carbon in the ecological and biochemical cycles that help understand life, ecology and climate. Thus, a sort of stochiometric companion to Joëlle Gergis’ Sunburnt Country and Eelco Rohling’s The Oceans. A deep history. And, The Emerald Planet (David Beerling) goes closer to the top of my intray, with multiple references here and advocated a few times by other recent sources also.

Instructive on the history of key discoveries in the field, particularly chemists Joseph Black (1728-1799) who concluded that the gas generated from acid on limestone was the same one that we exhale, and Antoine Lavoisiere (1743-1794) and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) who determined the chemistry and properties of CO2. Priestley moved to America to escape the guillotine but Lavoisiere didn’t. I didn’t know that it was Swede Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848) who allocated letters as convenient names for the elements and that he was probably inspired to do so by Linneaus’ binomials for animal and plant species a few years before. Of course Hessen’s book is also a great source for Charles Keeling (1928-2005) and his pioneering measurements of CO2 on Mauna Loa from 1958. James Lovelock (who turned 99 a few weeks ago, and invented in passing the microwave oven as well as the Gaia hypothesis) gets a kind mention.

Dag Olav Hessen clearly admires that all these researchers are “all-rounders” with broad knowledge across scientific disciplines; evidently Hessen is also, and an undercurrent through the book gently advocates such learning.

I also liked that Hessen tries to avoid flying where possible and comes out and questions incessant air travel in academics who otherwise profess a concern for minimising atmospheric CO2 and personal carbon footprints. No wonder he won the 2010 Freedom of Expression prise of the Fritt Ord Foundation, Oslo.