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Carbon (one atom's odyssey) - John Barnett ***

This book is based on a clever, high concept approach - following the existence of a carbon atom from its creation billions of years ago through its role in geology and then living organisms on Earth, ending up in the author's brain as he writes the story. Along the way we see the molecules that the carbon has been part of - often something simple like carbon dioxide, but sometimes in more complex organic molecules (and for no explained reason a buckyball when the Milky Way galaxy forms).

The book is illustrated with accomplished black and white pencil drawings by John Barnett These are fine, but the format used is odd. What we have here is basically the format of an illustrated book for seven-year-olds - it really took me back to reading to my children. There are big double pages spreads of the drawings - some with no text at all, others with a single paragraph of text, all in an extra-large format book. This isn't a children's title though - which meant it felt extremely skimpy for an adult audience. I'd read it in under 10 minutes.

Another small issue is that the author and Roald Hoffmann, who wrote the preface, go on at some length about Primo Levi's  The Periodic Table. This book actually has in its acknowledgements 'As a form of honor and thanks to the humanity and grace of Primo Levi.' Which is fine if you're a fan of Levi's book, but probably doesn't help if you've never read it - which will be the case for the majority of the potential audience.

For me, Carbon was disappointing as it was neither fish nor fowl. It was designed like a children's book, but aimed at an adult audience. Like other adult novelty books (adult pop-up books, for example), it had far too little content to be satisfying.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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