Back when I was living in Washington, DC, and writing the first two books, I had the privilege of receiving invaluable input from a group of local writers. We called ourselves Roomful of Writers, and for awhile there we met each week, critiquing each other's submitted works. They're the reason Black Bodies and Quantum Cats ended up being such a quirky, pop-culture-laden collection of physics essays -- and also why it ended up being so readable, since most of our members had an almost pathological aversion to scientific jargon of any kind. Seriously? The folks at ROW made me a much better writer, and for that, they will always have my gratitude and loyalty. Just as I was finishing The Physics of the Buffyverse, a new member joined our ragtag team: Eric Roston, a former reporter for TIME, who was writing a book about carbon. As in, the element. It was nice to have another science writer to even out the ranks a bit. (Check out this fun piece he wrote for TIME last year about carbonation in soft drinks and how it relates to climate change.)
Unfortunately, Eric joined just as the group was unraveling, with members going their separate ways: to Africa, to New York City, to motherhood, and in my case, to marriage and sunny Los Angeles. Still, Eric is a professional: he muddled through on his own without our help, wrote his book, and we kept in touch as he did so. Last fall, I had the privilege of reading the entire manuscript. And now? The book is being published next month! It's called The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat, it's available for pre-order (go on, you know you want a copy!), and the preliminary reviews have been terrific. Jen-Luc Piquant smells best-seller. Go Eric! Not only that, Eric has gone to the dark side and become a blogger at Carbon Nation.
Anyway, as a special treat, we're featuring a two-part Q&A -- more like a conversation, really -- in which Eric chats with hardcore bibliophile Jen-Luc Piquant about his new book, the writing process, climate change, rising gas prices, and what carbon could possibly have in common with MySpace doyen turned reality TV star Tila Tequila. It's lengthy, but substantive, and well worth the read. Bon appetit!
Jen-Luc: What possessed you to write a book about carbon?
Eric: The short answer is that I wanted to read a book about carbon, but nobody else had written one.
Jen-Luc: Okay, so what's the long answer?
Eric: Alfred Hitchcock movies all have what he referred to as a "MacGuffin": the thing the characters in the movie are after, whether it be microfilm, uranium in wine bottles, or papers. It never matters to the audience. It only matters to the characters. The news media treat carbon like it's a MacGuffin. It's the reason we have to reduce our industrial emissions, or the gee-whiz supermaterial that convinces us to drop another $200 for a carbon-fiber tennis racket, or the "carbs" we avoid (or embrace) in food.
But carbon isn't a MacGuffin. It's the central structural element of all life and civilization, and as such, the quickest path to learn the most about virtually everything larger than an atom and smaller than a planet.
Jen-Luc: What makes the topic particularly timely? Not just why this book, but why now?
Eric: At the end of 2003, carbon-dioxide induced global warming was bleeding into the private sector. The Atkins "low-carb" diet was careening towards its spectacular blowout. Oil (read hydrocarbons) prices began their steady ascent, after the Iraq invasion. And Lance Armstrong rode to victory in Paris in the Tour de France year after year on a $6500 carbon-fiber Trek bike. Everywhere I looked, people were talking about carbon, but in stovepipes, completely removed from each other. I wanted to start a project that would tease out the connective tissue between all these stories. We think of these as far-flung topics, but you can build a singular narrative, "carbon-based," that unifies and explains vast swaths of our experience. Looking at what carbon is, how it does that crazy thing it does, and how it gets around, allows you to talk about energy, climate, personal health, materials, and much else all in one conversation.
Jen-Luc: Okay, so I see the attraction, and the relevance, but it must have been daunting. I mean, isn't that like writing a book about air, or hydrogen?
Eric: Richard Feynman said, "No matter what you look at, if you look at closely enough, you are involved in the entire Universe." In the last 20 years or so, there have been a lot of nonfiction books -- microhistories -- that illuminate vast swaths of life, the universe and everything by peering through nontraditional lenses: salt, gold, walking, the computer chip, oxygen, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Jen-Luc: Anyone who invokes both Hitchcock and Feynman in the first 10 minutes wins mega-points with us, plus you subtly plugged our second book. But how did you narrow the scope of the book sufficiently to produce a compelling narrative?
Eric: The simple answer? An enormous amount of work and an enormous amount of time. I ended up with a balanced, structured narrative across 12 chapters -- a wink at carbon's atomic mass (12), which is the official standard by which all others are measured. Filling those chapters was a little like filling an ice cube tray with water. You have to swish it around quite a bit to get all the cubes to the same level. the first half of the book ("The Natural") is basically about evolution and its effect on the global carbon cycle. The second half ("The Unnatural") looks at what technology is within evolution, and technology's effect on the global carbon cycle (i.e., meteoric).
Before I stumbled upon this structure, thinking about the narrative was like trying to cut soup with a knife. Check this out: as of May 19, 12:45 AM, there were 35,421,960 known substances. This number grows by about 3000-4000 every day. But only about 100,000 of them are inorganic, science-speak for "not containing carbon." That means, essentially, I had a practically infinite pool of things to write about, needed to pick a dozen, build stories around them, and make sure that the stories flow out of carbon's singular narrative. I don't know what's crazier, how much work this book took, or the fact that I loved almost every second of it.
Jen-Luc: Here's more evidence of your very high tolerance for pain: Most of your research is comprised of peer-reviewed articles from scientific journals. Isn't that a bit masochistic of you?
Eric: I got into it. First of all, journal articles are primary documents. I wanted to avoid secondary literature, media, to the extent possible. (I supplemented the diet of journal articles with many books by writer-scientists and science writers.) Also, I wanted to emphasize how important peer review is. Never mind for a moment the debates going on in the blogosphere and elsewhere about the future of peer-reviewed journals. Scientists appeal to each others' professional judgment as a way to drive forward, into the unknown. It's kind of like the US justice system, where the highest, most noble authority is the jury of our peers. So by concentrating on peer-reviewed literature (despite all the imperfections), I also wanted to defend professional judgment, which is under attack in this country, be i in science, journalism, and other areas.
Jen-Luc: You have firsthand experience with the mainstream media. How do you feel about the current level of public discourse on scientific issues in general, and the topic of climate change in particular? As a faux-French, intellectually elitist avatar, I get discouraged when these sorts of issues fail to get covered as frequently as the Starlet du Jour's latest randy exploits. Can the blogosphere help fill in the gap left by the dearth of substantive media analysis?
Eric: By design, The Carbon Age is a book that I hope (a) people will enjoy, and (b) is filled with all the stuff I wish could be taken for granted by mainstream media, policymakers, and captains of industry. You have to take your hat off for a number of people and institutions who in the last decade have emphasized the importance of putting more science into public discourse and fixing US education. They include but are not limited to: the February 2001 Hart-Rudman Commission report on 21st century threats to the US; Tom Friedman's The World is Flat; the October 2005 NAS report Rising Above the Gathering Storm; and work in the blogosphere by the "Sciblings" (SEED's stable of science blogs) and other science bloggers.
Because I worked for several years in the corporate media, I think about these questions from a different angle. For example, why does science rarely get covered? I would argue that looking at the bigger economic picture might help answer this question. The business model for news media in the US is broken. Newspapers and magazines are still profitable, but not as much as they have been historically, and many have had to take draconian measures to cut costs in order to stay profitable. So science coverage gets cut. But so do legal affairs, government (versus politics), local coverage, investigations, education, art, international events, etc. We're not getting as much of virtually everything -- except the randy exploits.
To me, this speaks of a problem much deeper and more complicated than how science and scientists are portrayed in the media. It speaks to how we teach students science, and how they take it (or don't) into the labor force and culture. The media are losing their shirts everywhere, so I think they are just one star in the galaxy of problems with education standards. Nations need to invest in their citizens. Ours hasn't so much lately, relative to the competition. That's the ultimate reason many people think the corporate media don't cover science well.
A friend of mind is a pollster and quite cynical. He said recently that the problem with Washington isn't politicians, it's voters. Americans get the political leaders they deserve. The same might be said of media. If editors sense that people don't want to read about science as much as celebrities, there will be less science and more celebrities. On a positive note, I would emphasize strongly that there is more good journalism going on today than possibly ever. It just has smaller, fragmented audiences.
Jen-Luc: That said, we're not above mentioning the occasional Shameless Starlet to boost our blog traffic a bit. Your book was linked on shop.MTV's Website to the DVD release of Season 1 the reality show, Tila Tequila's Shot at Love. Why isn't she in your book? After all, Tila (see photo above) is a carbon-based life form, albeit with a more synthetic enhancements than most. And Carl Sagan once said that we are all made of star stuff.
Eric: I was happy and amused that shop.MTV noticed that if you like soft-core porn, you'll love The Carbon Age. There actually is sex of a sort in the book. And certainly it's true that every atom larger than hydrogen in a starlet's body was forged in a sun. From what I gather, though, at least in the Hollywood sense, Tila Tequila is not "star" material.
NEXT UP: Things get serious! "C is for Carbon: Part Deux," in which Eric tells Jen-Luc Piquant all about good and bad carbs, global warming, and what it was like to interview Vaclav Smil, former Czechoslovakian dissident turned distinguished professor.