6. Carbon: The Circle Of Life

Learn why carbon is the foundation of all life on Earth as we investigate a chemist’s suicide, death by air pollution, and one very, very cold murder case.

Featured above: Stanley Miller photographed next to a replica of his famous experiment he conducted alongside Harold Urey.

Bonds, Covalent Bonds: As promised, here’s a video from FuseSchool that does a pretty good job explaining covalent bonding, doesn’t get caught up explaining other types of bonds, and has some helpful visualizations.

It also mentions the Octet Rule, which can be helpful, but it’s not really a “rule” since not all elements abide by it. I didn’t want to confuse the issue by mentioning it in this episode, but if you just keep in mind that the Octet Rule only applies to the first twenty elements, for the most part, you’ll be fine.

Sadly, this video doesn’t include carbon as an example. Carbon, with six total electrons, including four in its valence shell, needs four more electrons to fulfill the Octet Rule.

Carbon actually can’t acquire those four electrons by bonding with a single other atom, so I can see why FuseSchool didn’t use carbon as an example here! (It can get those electrons by bonding with *two* [or more] other atoms, including two other carbon atoms. This is one reason why the element has a propensity to form long chains.)

The Great Pea Souper: Above, London’s Tower Bridge during the Great Smog of 1952.

io9 has a great collection of photos of smoggy London from various times in the 20th century, including the Great Smog of 1952. It’s hard to imagine living under those conditions 24 hours a day. Particularly telling is the photograph of an air filter after one night’s use.

We Didn’t Start The Fire: Centralia, PA is a coal town — or was. Now it’s a ghost town, thanks to a fire that’s been burning underground for more than half a century. Vsauce3 produced a bite-sized documentary that shows the effects of burning coal in a microcosm.

Whatcha Gonna Do With All That Trunk: Trees are among the largest living organisms on Earth, but we don’t often think about where they acquire the matter that gets converted into “tree.” The superb YouTube channel Veritasium takes a look at some common misconceptions in this short video:


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  1. Nature, The Four Worlds Of Carbon. Simon H. Friedman.
  2. CK12.org, Significance Of Carbon.
  3. JRank, Why Carbon Is Special.
  4. World of Chemicals, Gilbert Newton Lewis – Discoverer Of Covalent Bond.
  5. Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities And Rivalries that Made Modern Chemistry. Patrick Coffey, 2008.
  6. Chemical Heritage Foundation, Gilbert Newton Lewis. Last updated July 23, 2015.
  7. An Encyclopedia Of Human Thermodynamics, Founders Of Thermodynamics And Suicide.
  8. Wired, Sept. 19, 1991: Hikers Stumble Upon Otzi, The Alpine Iceman. Tony Long, September 19, 2007.
  9. ThoughtCo., Otzi the Iceman: One Of The Greatest Archaeological Discoveries Of The 20th Century. Jennifer Rosenberg, November 13, 2017.
  10. The Telegraph, Melting Glaciers In Northern Italy Reveal Corpses Of WWI Soldiers. Laura Spinney, January 13, 2014.
  11. National Geographic News, Iceman’s Stomach Sampled — Filled With Goat Meat. Ker Than, June 23, 2011.
  12. The Telegraph, Now You Can Walk In The Footsteps Of 5,000-Year-Old Iceman — Wearing His Boots. Katka Krosnar, July 17, 2005.
  13. Mummy Tombs, DNA Tests Suggest Otzi Died After Fight But Not Alone. August 10, 2003.
  14. BBC, Which Form Of Life Dominates Earth? Nic Fleming, February 10, 2015.
  15. The Christian Science Monitor, Weighing The Options Of Coal Vs. Wood. Peter Tonge, November 12, 1980.
  16. Atmospheric Pollution: History, Science, And Regulation, pp. 84 – 85. Mark Z. Jacobson, 2012. Backed up on this site for archival purposes.
  17. The Living Age, Volume 195, page 499. 1892.
  18. Union Of Concerned Scientists, Coal And Air Pollution.
  19. Fumifugium: Or The Inconveniencie Of The Aer And Smoak Of London Dissipated Together With Some Remedies Humbly Proposed By J. E. Esq; To His Sacred Majestie, And To The Parliament Now Assembled. 1661.
  20. The New York Times, Why The Great Smog Of London Was Anything But Great. Eric Nagourney, August 12, 2013.
  21. USA Today, Mystery Of London Fog That Killed 12,000 Finally Solved. Jane Onyanga-Omara, December 13, 2016.
  22. BBC Future, The Lethal Effects Of London Fog.  Those numbers only count those who suffered acute effects — it’s difficult to say exactly how many contracted chronic and ultimately fatal health conditions.22Time, Everything To Know About The Great Smog Of 1952, As Seen On The Crown. Kate Samuelson, November 4, 2016.
  23. The Telegraph, Air Pollution In London Passes Levels In Beijing… And Wood Burners Are Making Problem Worse. Sarah Knapton, January 25, 2017.
  24. Chemicool, Carbon Element Facts. Dr. Doug Stewart.

3 Replies to “6. Carbon: The Circle Of Life”

  1. Another entertaining episode. One question: Why doesn’t somebody figue out how to generate electricity from that underground fire. If it is going to continue burning for 150 years and it can’t be extinguished, it seems like a free power source that ought to be put to some use.

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