8 surprising things you never knew about carbon_laser freckle removal recovery

8 surprising things you never knew about carbonCarbon is in the news every day for its impact on our planet — but it’s so much more than you think

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Carbon is in the news every day for its impact on our planet — but it’s so much more than you think

CBC Docs(Handful of Films)

Carbon comes from the heart of a star and so do you

After the Big Bang, it took about 100 million yearsfor the first stars to appear. This is when the first carbon atoms were born.

When stars burn out or explode, carbon scatters across the universe. Over time, element clouds (including carbon) gather, and new stars and planets form. One such cloud became the foundation of our solar system and life here on Earth, meaning we, like everything around us, are made of stardust.

Watch: Astrophysicists Tamara Davis and Neil deGrasse Tyson describe how we are all made of stardust.

We are all made of stardust | Carbon: The Unauthorized Biography

29 days agoDuration 1:51As carbon-based life forms, every living thing on the planet has some stardust in it.1:51

Carbon is 'the life of the party'

"Carbon's the life of the party," says astrophysicist Tamara Davis in Carbon: The Unauthorized Biography, a documentary from The Nature of Things. "[It] likes grabbing on to all sorts of different people … twirling them around, throwing them off and grabbing a new partner."

That's because carbon atoms have six electrons, a magic number that makes it the perfect mate: carbon can bond with other elements in all kinds of ways. 

"[Carbon] can make diamond," says materials scientist and engineer Mark Miodownik, "which is … crystalline and bright and hard. And [it] can make graphite, which is a lubricant and black."

The diverse ways that carbon can bond with itself and other elements means there's almost no limit to the compounds it can form.

All our stuff is made from carbon 

Humans have harnessed carbon as the builder of everything, using it to make plastic, steel, asphalt and more.

"Humans use just immense, immense amounts of carbon, and other materials, to make our stuff," says mineralogist and astrobiologist Robert Hazen in the film. 

"The total amount of materials that humans have manufactured … it's greater than the total mass of all the biosphere: the trees and the elephants and the ants and the coral reefs, all that stuff. Humans have made more than all of that biomass put together." 

WATCH: Harnessing carbon has given us a superpower, but we have a lot more to learn.

We have created more stuff with carbon than all the biomass on Earth | Carbon: The Unauthorized Biography

29 days agoDuration 1:17Manipulating carbon has become our superpower, allowing us to build the world we know today. But it comes at a cost.1:17

Carbon provided the 'spark of life' on Earth

Some scientists believe life began on Earth when carbon-based amino acids spontaneously formed at the edges of hot springs and shallow bodies of water — the first building blocks of DNA.

The original theory — that life began in the oceans — has been disputed, replaced by the theory that life actually began in shallow water. A number of scientific studies have been able to create DNA and proteins by heating simple carbon-based chemicals, present in the "primordial soup," and exposing them to UV radiation while periodically drying them out. 

This "hallejulah" moment of spontaneously creating the basic molecules of life could not be replicated in seawater, leading scientists to reconsider where life on Earth actually first took hold (and may have taken hold on other planets).

Plants use carbon to create food for our world

A tree "is essentially a moving factory of carbon," says biologist Carin Bondar in the documentary, "going up and down and all around at all times."

Trees and other plants suck carbon dioxide out of the air and into their leaves, where they use the sunlight's energy to convert CO2 and water into food — i.e. sugar molecules — and oxygen. The oxygen is released back into the air, where it sustains other animal life, including us.  

"It's these simple sugars that are the packed lunch of the natural world," says Bondar. Plants and trees move them around through the internal highways flowing through their tissues. Some sugars go up to be used as building blocks, forming new branches and leaves, and some go down into the soil below.

Coal is buried sunlight

Over 300 million years ago, the first trees began taking root on Earth. They were strange-looking giants with shallow root systems that grew in swampy environments and had a tendency to fall over easily. At the time, there were no wood-eating microbes or fungus— they hadn't evolved yet. 

So, as the ancient trees fell, they didn't decompose. They piled up on top of each other, creating immense beds of undigested wood. As these layers were buried, all that weight eventually compressed the wood, and over the years, turned it into coal. 

It's estimated that 90 per cent of the coal we burn today comes from this period, appropriately named the Carboniferous Period. 

Whether it's coal, oil or gas, fossil fuels are concentrated carbon, containing the sun's energy that was once captured by plants (and consumed by animals) millions of years ago and locked away underground. So, when you burn a lump of coal or turn on your gas oven, you're using the energy of sunlight that hit our planet's surface in the distant, ancient past.

A warm blanket of carbon (a.k.a. the greenhouse effect) allowed early life to thrive

When life first emerged on Earth, the sun was burning at 70 to 80 per cent of its current brightness. If the sun were dimmed by one-third today, we would all be dead. But in those very early days, a dense layer of greenhouse gases covered our planet, giving life a warm blanket.

We owe everything to these greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and others — and their ability to trap infrared heat in our atmosphere, leading to the living planet we have today. 

It's not carbon's fault

Neil deGrasse Tyson has something to tell you: don't blame carbon for the pickle we're in. "It's not carbon's fault!" he says. 

We hear about the carbon crisis everywhere these days: What's your carbon footprint? What's your carbon tax? We're at war with carbon!

"We built civilization, after the ice age, on a stability of climate," says deGrasse Tyson. "The problem comes about if you start doing things that interfere with that equilibrium."  

Burning fossil fuels is a prime example of this. "​​[Doing so] will create a level of warmth on this Earth that civilization has never seen," he says. "And now we say that [the problem is] carbon. I'm saying it's carbon dioxide, please."  

WATCH:  It's not carbon's fault, it's carbon dioxide, please

Neil deGrasse Tyson on our dangerous affair with carbon dioxide | Carbon: The Unauthorized Biography

29 days agoDuration 1:32Carbon is essential to our planet and the life it sustains. But when we pull it out of the ground and light it on fire, that becomes a problem.Carbon is not our enemy. We need to understand it to protect our future


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