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There are few fields of science that carbon-14 has not touched. A radioactive isotope of carbon, it stands out for its unusually long half-life. Best known for its application to estimating the age of artifacts – carbon dating – carbon-14 helped reveal new chronologies of human civilization and geological time. Everything containing carbon, the basis of all life, could be placed in time according to the clock of radioactive decay, with research applications ranging from archaeology to oceanography to climatology.
In Hot Carbon, John F. Marra tells the untold story of this scientific revolution. He weaves together the workings of the many disciplines that employ carbon-14 with gripping tales of the individuals who pioneered its possibilities. He describes the concrete applications of carbon-14 to the study of all the stuff of life on earth, from climate science's understanding of change over time to his own work on oceanic photosynthesis with microscopic phytoplankton. Marra's engaging narrative encompasses nuclear testing, the peopling of the Americas, elephant poaching, and the flax plants used for the linen in the Shroud of Turin.
Combining colourful narrative prose with accessible explanations of fundamental science, Hot Carbon is a thought-provoking exploration of how the power of carbon-14 informs our relationship to the past.
John F. Marra is professor of earth and environmental science and director of the Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center at Brooklyn College. He was previously a research scientist and associate director of the Division of Biology and Paleoenvironment at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
It is nearly 80 years since the discovery of carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of the sixth element. [...] In the wonderfully engaging Hot Carbon, oceanographer John Marra takes this story much further, exploring not just the science, but why we should care about it. [...] Hot Carbon offers a timely perspective on how mind-bogglingly connected our planet is – and how 14C will continue to be important in helping us to understand what lies ahead."
– Chris Turney, Nature 570 (7761), June 2019
"This is an engaging and witty account of the discovery of carbon-14 – there are surprising twists and turns along the way. With its entertaining descriptions of carbon-14's role in understanding fundamental life processes, dating archaeological specimens, and chronicling past climate, this book is a page-turner for anyone interested in the history of scientific discovery."
– James J. McCarthy, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography, Harvard University
"You may never have heard of carbon-14, but from chemistry to physiology to oceanography, no isotope has affected more aspects of modern life. With precision and verve, oceanographer John Marra profiles the most important isotope on earth."
– Eli Kintisch, correspondent, Science magazine