Friday, December 26, 2008

Eric Roston

Eric Roston is a science writer in Washington, DC, and author of The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat.

From Roston's Q & A with Jennifer Ouellette at Cocktail Party Physics:

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.
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue