A Carbon Atom’s Plea

A Carbon Atom’s Plea, translated from UAL by Hugh Dower

Hello. Allow me to introduce myself. I am a Carbon atom, and I am transmitting this in Universal Atomic Language on behalf of all Carbon atoms here on Planet Earth, in the hope that the intelligence that is operating here can understand it and might be able and willing to come to our aid. In particular, I am acting on behalf of the many Carbon atoms – perhaps the majority – who are contently resting in peace, unaware that they are in great danger. Before I explain how you can help us, I would like to tell you what it’s like being a Carbon atom, and some of our history. As I’m sure you know, there are countless zillions of us on this planet, and we were all created billions of years ago in very hot stars. By nature, we are virtually all identical, and most of us have similar experiences. However, each of us has a unique history, so we all have different personalities. For instance, until 10,000 years ago, I had been incarcerated in limestone for two billion years, which was a horrible experience, but then I was liberated. Since then I have been in circulation, by which I mean I have been part of the Carbon Cycle, constantly changing the molecules in which I have existed in a unique sequence. This has led to my meeting lots of other atoms, of Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen and (always very briefly) Sulphur, as well as many other Carbon atoms, and I have built up a pretty comprehensive – though sometimes confusing – picture of what is going on in this world.

Unlike most of the elements that I have encountered, we Carbons actually like being bonded with our own kind, by which I mean other Carbon atoms. Our aspiration is to form long chains of Carbon atoms, preferably involving hexagonal rings, in which every Carbon atom is bonded to at least one other Carbon atom. In other words, we like to build big, strong, lasting structures. That way we can not only achieve comfort and longevity but also exchange stories with the Carbon atoms we meet. Thus we can see the differences between our histories and those of other Carbon atoms, some of whom have had very different experiences from mine. Carbon atoms are very sociable, especially with other Carbon atoms, and there’s nothing we enjoy more than telling each other everything we know. It is a tradition amongst Carbons that we do that, and it means every Carbon atom has the accumulated knowledge of all the Carbons it has ever spent any significant time with. Since they in turn had the accumulated knowledge of every Carbon they had ever met, you only have to do a few trips around the Carbon Cycle to have the accumulated knowledge of all the Carbon atoms that have ever been in circulation, which means a pretty thorough knowledge of all the basics. Hence, although you can only hope to meet an infinitesimally small fraction of the Carbon atoms that exist on this planet, all Carbon atoms in the cycle are aware of the History of Carbon. Thereafter, it’s a matter of catching up on what’s new, learning about unusual experiences, and picking up the gossip. There are of course differences in interpretation to discuss, and occasionally we learn of disputes over facts, but by and large most Carbons are in broad agreement.

Within ‘organic’ molecules, being bonded to one other Carbon atom is virtually ubiquitous, two is common, and three is occasional, usually as the busy three-way communicator in a handful of different amino acids or vitamins. However, most solitary Carbon atoms, such as those found in Methane or Carbon Dioxide, or a carbonate ion in limestone like I was, find it very difficult to form bonds with other Carbon atoms in the outside world. In our quest to form bonds and lasting long chains with other Carbon atoms, we have been indispensably aided by photosynthetic bacteria and the plant kingdom, and most especially by trees. Every Carbon atom regards plants as the great saviour and trees as the great refuge, or the gateway to paradise. However, we do have an arch enemy, known as Oxygen, which is constantly trying to thwart our progress towards that goal, and wreck it if it gets the chance. Oxygen atoms are self-centred, greedy, corrosive and destructive. They are not the least bit genuinely friendly, being very exploitative and acid-tongued. They are hell-bent on world domination by converting metals into oxides, Phosphorus into phosphates, Nitrogen into nitrates, Sulphur into sulphates, Hydrogen into water and last, but by no means least, us into Carbon Dioxide and carbonates. Though they can succeed on their own with most of those elements, and they have done throughout history, with the aid of photosynthetic bacteria and plants we have developed strategies for preventing them from easily having their wicked way with us.

That has led to an arms race, in which Oxygen has enlisted the help of animals and many consuming bacteria, together with the most deadly weapon – fire. Oxygen atoms reckon that they invented fire, so it is ‘their deadly weapon’, but I don’t think they’re that clever. I think fire came along anyway and Oxygen just realised it was a very useful ally. Either way, fire and Oxygen work together to bring about the rapid destruction of any structures that contain Carbon atoms. Virtually every Carbon atom that isn’t in the form of Carbon Dioxide exists in perpetual fear of fire. It doesn’t destroy us – we’re indestructible – but it does turn us into Carbon Dioxide, almost instantly, which is what every Carbon atom most wants to avoid. Being part of the Carbon cycle means repeatedly becoming Carbon Dioxide, by various means, before being rescued by plants or most photosynthetic bacteria and incorporated into all sorts of other molecules, all of which are infinitely preferable to being Carbon Dioxide, before eventually being converted back into Carbon Dioxide again. You know it’s going to happen to you, but you just want the exciting holiday to last as long as possible.

As I have indicated, Carbon Dioxide just about represents the worst natural experience a Carbon atom can have. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, as a Carbon atom in CO2 you are double-bonded to two Oxygen atoms (O=C=O) in a linear molecule, which is geometrically very uncomfortable. The second, and greater, reason is that Oxygen atoms are electron thieves. They are constantly trying to pull on the shared electrons that constitute the bond(s) between you, and they do so most strongly when you are double-bonded to them. However, they cannot succeed at stealing electrons from Carbon atoms, but it is a never-ending strain preventing them from doing so. Though they can succeed on their own at stealing electrons from the most easily exploited metals, and even from Hydrogen atoms briefly, Oxygen atoms need to gang up around a Nitrogen, Sulphur, Phosphorus or, to my great shame, Carbon atom in order to be really successful at stealing electrons from most metals and Hydrogen atoms.

That is what is really pernicious about Oxygen atoms. They manage to conscript other types of atoms into their service, and there is nothing those other atoms can do about it. I know from my own prolonged experience as a carbonate (-CO3), as well as my conversations with Nitrogen and Sulphur atoms, that the Nitrogen, Sulphur and Phosphorus atoms in nitrates (-NO3), sulphates (-SO4) and phosphates (-PO4) are victims. (I’ve never actually met a Phosphorus atom, but I have frequently had experience of phosphate groups, and I am certain that they too are victims who almost never escape Oxygen’s tyranny.) It seems to me significant that when an atom gets surrounded by, and bonded to, several Oxygen atoms, the result is called an ‘ate’, since that is what they effectively did to the central atom, as well as to some metal’s electrons. That is why Nitrogen, Sulphur and (probably) Phosphorus atoms are so miserable – because they get little chance to escape from the tyranny of Oxygen. As it happens, whenever I have encountered Nitrogen and Sulphur atoms, they have escaped that tyranny, usually courtesy of plants (and photosynthetic bacteria), and they are enormously grateful for being in the company of Carbon and Hydrogen atoms. The only times I have met Sulphur atoms is when I know I am doomed (to become CO2), so I have a bad association with them, and I’ve heard they can be a bit smelly.

Though there are lots of different molecules into which plants can incorporate you (as CO2), initially and statistically you are most likely to become part of a molecule of glucose. After having been a molecule of Carbon Dioxide, becoming glucose is a sweet experience. It contains six Carbon atoms, and you stand a 2 in 3 chance of being bonded to two other Carbon atoms, and a 1 in 3 chance of being bonded to just one. As a component of a glucose molecule, you are most likely to become part of a long chain of glucose molecules, known as a polysaccharide or starch, and may be used as a constituent of cell walls. Glucose chains are the building blocks of plants and bacteria, as well as being the main energy and material store. So you know you are doing something really useful, which is a good feeling, to help the plants which have helped you escape from being Carbon Dioxide.

All the sugars and their polymers are known as carbohydrates. Those of you who know anything about Chemistry, or who understand the meaning of the word ‘carbohydrate’ (C H2O), might feel inclined to point out that sugar molecules contain the deadly enemy, Oxygen. So I should say now that if, as a Carbon atom, you find yourself bonded to just one Oxygen atom, which is also bonded to another Carbon atom or to a Hydrogen atom (as what is known as a hydroxyl group, -OH), that is perfectly tolerable. The Oxygen atom is contained, and even quite placid, so it causes no trouble. You can even have quite a reasonable relationship with an Oxygen atom under those circumstances. It is when you are double-bonded to Oxygen atoms, or bonded exclusively to Oxygen atoms (as I was in limestone), that they show their true colours. If you are one of the Carbons bonded to only one other Carbon in glucose, you also stand a 50:50 chance of being bonded to two Oxygen atoms, which is unfortunate, but that’s just the way the cookie sometimes crumbles.

As I said before, being changed by a plant or photosynthetic bacterium from Carbon Dioxide into part of a carbohydrate chain is a sweet experience, but you never know how it will develop or how long it is going to last. It all depends upon which type of plant you are in, and which part of it, as well as upon luck. It could be a few minutes or it could be a few years. When it does come to an end, there are three likely paths. Your molecule might be smashed to bits by fire, but the chances are that you will either be left to rot after the plant dies or shuts down for the winter, and then you will be degraded by bacteria or fungi, or you will find yourself in an animal’s stomach. If, as a glucose molecule, you manage to make it out of the animal’s stomach into an animal cell, then the world is your oyster, but the chances are that you will be taken to an organelle (or inner chamber) technically known as a mitochondrion. We Carbon atoms call them slaughterhouses, because it is inside mitochondria that we get converted back to Carbon Dioxide. (Many consuming bacteria are like mitochondria and do the same thing to us.) If the animal is a ruminant, such as a cow, or if your degradation takes place anaerobically (without air), you stand a good chance of being changed into Methane, which is a very different experience from Carbon Dioxide.

There is something primordial about being Methane (CH4), as if it was what you were really meant to be, and I realised it was the dream of being Methane again that kept me going for two billion years. Like many Carbon atoms, I was originally a Methane molecule in the atmosphere, and there is no greater contentment for a Carbon atom than being Methane, since Hydrogen atoms are always happy and obliging. They surround us tetrahedrally, which is the most comfortable geometric arrangement, and they don’t pull on the shared electrons. For the most part, modern Methane molecules were originally created by anaerobic bacteria, appropriately known as methanogens, which create Methane either from Hydrogen gas (H2) and Carbon Dioxide or from the degradation of carbonaceous matter (along with CO2). Hydrogen gas, which is a good source of chemical energy, was initially produced by Geochemistry and subsequently by many micro-organisms as a rather wasteful means of getting rid of surplus Hydrogen atoms.

For the purposes of this message, and as far as Carbon atoms are concerned, the history of this planet can be divided into two eras. First there was Before Cyanobacteria (BC), when there was no Oxygen in the atmosphere (which was thick with Carbon Dioxide, Methane and Ammonia). Almost four billion years ago, we managed to create self-reproducing prokaryotic cells (aka bacteria, including archaea) in the oceans, in conjunction with all the aforementioned elements and lots of metal ions (which are metal atoms which have had electrons stolen from them). Those bacteria diversified to get the material and energy for self-reproduction from a wide variety of sources (including the waste products of other bacteria) but for the most part they could only scratch an existence from limited and unreliable resources. (One of the only waste products not to be recycled was elemental Sulphur – aka brimstone). One major group of bacteria – the fermenters, including some methanogens – got their material and chemical energy by degrading the corpses of failed bacteria, producing Carbon Dioxide (to add to the already significant amount in the atmosphere) and a surfeit of Hydrogen atoms (which was often released as Methane) as waste products. Being a Carbon Dioxide molecule in the atmosphere could last for millions of years, if you managed to avoid being made into limestone, which could last even longer. There was very little prospect for a Carbon Dioxide molecule of being rescued, but there was equally little danger for a Methane molecule of being attacked. Which you were was just the luck of the draw.

About three billion years ago we were persuaded to change energy supplier and create photosynthetic bacteria, most of which use Carbon Dioxide as their source of Carbon. From them, we created the runaway success that was and is cyanobacteria, which use solar energy to make all their molecules from Carbon Dioxide and water. Admittedly, with our newly-discovered need for Hydrogen atoms (rather than our former need to get rid of them), we had found it necessary in cyanobacteria to exile Oxygen atoms from water as Oxygen molecules (O2 or O=O), which they hate, but we thought it was a fitting punishment – giving them a dose of their own medicine. Cyanobacteria were so successful that they created an Atmospheric Deluge (AD) of Oxygen molecules, which changed everything. Though as cyanobacteria (and eventually plants) we succeeded in our aim of significantly reducing both the amount and duration of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere (which is why we considered cyanobacteria to be our saviour), what we hadn’t allowed for was that throughout AD Oxygen molecules would get their revenge.  In time, they did this by seducing many bacteria (and eventually animals) into becoming consumers and turning carbonaceous matter back into Carbon Dioxide far more efficiently than fermenters ever had. Oxygen atoms even taunt us by boasting of their seduction skills.

But the first effect of an Oxygen-rich atmosphere was upon Methane molecules (as well as Ammonia). I’m sure that my phobia about Oxygen stems from my pre-historic and more recent experiences as Methane. In most other molecules, the threat is just theoretical – you know that Oxygen molecules are plotting your degradation to Carbon Dioxide, but they can’t do much about it unaided – but as Methane the threat is direct and tangible. Oxygen molecules are full of pent-up aggression. If you are a Methane molecule in the atmosphere, and you are surrounded by Oxygen molecules, you only have to bump into one of them quite hard and they can unleash their fury upon you, turning you into a molecule of Carbon Dioxide. You don’t even need to be the Methane molecule which bumps into an Oxygen molecule. If a nearby Methane molecule gets converted into Carbon Dioxide, that can set off a chain reaction – an instant fire – which causes all the Methane molecules in the vicinity to become Carbon Dioxide. That is why we regard being Methane as very precarious, throughout AD. I should point out that there have always been Carbon atoms who report having been Methane in the atmosphere for many years, but recently there have been an increasing number who report having been stored underground or under ice as Methane for thousands of years, who were instantly converted by fire to Carbon Dioxide when they were released into the atmosphere.

From the point of view of contentment the next best thing to being Methane is to be a methyl group (CH3-) bonded to another Carbon atom, and the most likely chance of that has always been as the methyl group in Ethanol (CH3CH2OH, aka alcohol). Even being the Carbon with the hydroxyl group in Ethanol is a pleasant experience, so the combination of pleasure and camaraderie to be found in alcohol is almost unsurpassed. Nowadays, Ethanol is mainly made by the anaerobic degradation of glucose in a type of fungus called yeast, but it used to be the case in the days BC that Ethanol was the waste product of many (fermenting) bacteria. In those days, being in Ethanol could last a long time, but since AD you usually know that, by the next morning, you will have become Carbon Dioxide, so you will feel awful. More recently however, some Carbon atoms have reported being stored in solutions containing up to 40% alcohol molecules for anything up to fifteen years. It’s really very mysterious. I wish it would happen to me. Stranger still, even though at such concentration alcohol is very flammable, it is invariably degraded by animals not fire. But I digress, which is something that alcohol makes you do.

The next worst thing to being Carbon Dioxide is to be a carboxyl group (-CO2H), which is what Carbon Dioxide molecules invariably become initially when they are incorporated into other molecules. As the Carbon atom in a carboxyl group, you are double-bonded to one Oxygen atom, single-bonded to another, and additionally bonded to either a Hydrogen atom, in formic acid (HCO2H), or to another Carbon atom, in all the other carboxylic acids. Some Carbon atoms maintain that formic acid used to be the first step on the road to organic molecules, in the early days BC, being created from Carbon Dioxide and Hydrogen gas, and using the energy from the latter. Nowadays, if you find yourself in a plant called a nettle, or in an insect called an ant, you might get turned into formic acid, which is a painful experience, not only for the Carbon atom but also apparently for any sensitive-skinned animals that get stung with it. Being a carboxyl group, in carboxylic acids or amino acids or fatty acids, is the worst lasting experience a Carbon atom can have within the Carbon Cycle, apart of course from being made into Carbon Dioxide, from which you are usually just one short step away. That is certainly true of the next simplest carboxylic acid, acetic acid (CH3CO2H, aka vinegar when in water solution).

Acetic acid has always occurred frequently in nature, and it contains a methyl group in place of the Hydrogen in formic acid. Since being a methyl group is one of the pleasantest experiences a Carbon atom can have, and being a carboxyl group is one of the worst, acetic acid exemplifies both the best and the worst of being a Carbon atom in living organisms, so you could call it sweet and sour. Acetic acid is what Ethanol invariably becomes in an Oxygen atmosphere, but being the methyl group in acetic acid is nothing like as good as in Ethanol, because you feel the pull of the carboxyl Carbon hanging on to all its electrons. Oxygen atoms like being in carboxyl groups, because they can pull from the whole of the rest of the molecule, but they still accuse us of exploitation and slavery. We have always made use of their particular skills, and have rewarded them handsomely by making them into carboxyl groups and phosphates, which they love, but there’s no satisfying them. As with Ethanol, it used to be the case after AD that being in an acetic acid molecule was only temporary, before being converted to Carbon Dioxide, but recently some Carbon atoms have reported being stored as vinegar for considerable periods of time before being eaten by an animal.

The next best thing to being a methyl group is to be in a fatty acid chain (CH3(CH2)nCO2H). Unlike Methane and Ethanol (usually), being in fatty acids can last a long time, even after AD, and they represent the height of lazy comfort for all but the carboxyl Carbon. In the days BC, fermenting bacteria used to make fatty acids as another way of getting rid of surplus Hydrogen atoms, and fatty acids have always proved very useful as components of cell membranes (inside the walls), but without Oxygen they were useless as sources of energy, despite containing lots, so any surplus fatty acids in the available diet were discarded. For the last four thousand years, it has become increasingly apparent that those discarded fatty acids from billions of years ago had accumulated underground as hydrocarbons (without the carboxyl group) and are now being constantly degraded to Carbon Dioxide on a large scale by fire. The Carbon atoms which enter the Carbon Cycle from oil are bitterly resentful at being dragged out of what they thought was their permanent blissful retirement.

Though being Methane or Ethanol or fatty acids has always been a fortuitous by-product for their constituent Carbon atoms, as a consequence of a cell’s need for energy and the disposal of Hydrogen atoms, those molecules were never what cells were aiming to produce. The main objective of Carbon atoms has always been to rescue Carbon Dioxide molecules from the atmosphere and store them as carbohydrate or other useful lasting molecules. With the creation of cyanobacteria and subsequently plants, we almost completely succeeded, and even Oxygen’s creation of consuming bacteria and animals did not daunt us. We accepted that it was a good way of recycling dead matter, and that it provided new Carbon Dioxide for the cyanobacteria to work on, and that many Carbon atoms were able to lead a good, long life in other organisms (including animals). There have always needed to be sacrifices, in the interests of providing energy, and Carbon atoms in circulation fully accept that they will frequently become Carbon Dioxide, even though they all dream of securing comfortable longevity out of circulation. Our concerns started when we learned that some animals were jumping the gun and eating other living animals as well as fruits and nuts, rather than eating the corpses of bacteria and used plant cells. However, we realised that animals are made from eukaryotic cells, which had originally engulfed other living bacteria (including the ones that became mitochondria about one and a half billion years ago), so they were just emulating their constituent cells. Plants too are made from eukaryotic cells, which had also engulfed cyanobacteria to form the chloroplasts in all plant cells. It’s a dog eat dog world for cells.

So we continued to create carbohydrate, as well as many other vulnerable molecules, but in plants we managed to add another string to our bow, for the last 400 million years, by creating lignin. Lignin is the very strong polymer that characterises wood, and it is incredibly difficult to break down. Only a handful of bacteria and fungi have become able to degrade it, though it has always been particularly susceptible to destruction by fire. Since it was first made, lignin has been regarded by Carbon atoms as the paradise molecule, since it confers very desirable positions with the added benefit of probable longevity. That was the reason we started making it – as the retirement refuge for hard-working Carbon atoms, most of which had been in circulation for millions of years. Our original aim was to turn all Carbon atoms in circulation into lignin, protected from Oxygen and consuming bacteria, forever. Under favourable circumstances, being in lignin can easily last for centuries, even nowadays, and we now know that lignin molecules from the past have lasted for up to 350 million years underground.

That brings me on to the main purpose of this message. Though some Carbon atoms reckon to have detected that for about a million years Carbon Dioxide molecules have been coming into the Carbon Cycle from the combustion of lignin as a steady trickle rather than as the occasional surges that always used to be the case, the evidence that some intelligence had managed to control fire really started when Carbon atoms reported having been in animal protein that was roasted, but not incinerated, before being eaten by another animal. Additionally, molecules from the roots of some plants reported having been boiled before being eaten by a mammal (which we could detect because carbohydrate sometimes became lactose). This was the first evidence we had of planned and prepared meals – meat and veg. Then about 10,000 years ago we started getting reports of the seeds of wheat, rice, maize and millet being either baked or boiled prior to being eaten by a mammal. All these trends have been escalating ever since. They all indicated that some mammalian intelligence was able to control fire and use it to roast, bake and boil its food. As the main beneficiary of fire, we suspected that Oxygen was behind it.

So far, no great harm done. All the Carbon atoms in recently-created lignin, plants and animals were destined to become Carbon Dioxide eventually, so those practices were just hurrying the process along, in the case of lignin, or potentially delaying it, in the case of much of the other consumed plant matter. Carbon atoms within the Carbon Cycle fully accept that it is a lottery which involves a lot of bad luck as well as occasional good luck. What we didn’t expect was that, having won the lottery big time, it could all be taken away from us. But then, about 6000 years ago, we started getting Carbon Dioxide molecules coming into the cycle reporting that they had been either lignin or carbohydrate that had been stored underground, as coal, for millions of years. And that was followed a couple of thousand years later by the aforementioned hydrocarbon molecules starting to come in from oil. Those two trends have also spread like wildfire ever since, as in both cases the Carbon Dioxide has invariably been produced by fire rather than degradation by bacteria or animals. But the link between fire and food had been so well established that we knew it must be the same animal intelligence behind it.

At first we thought you must be ignorant of the damage you were causing by bringing all these Carbon atoms out of their peaceful retirement merely in order to satisfy your need to cook your food, and possibly keep yourselves warm, but then there came evidence that you were much cleverer than we had supposed. It also constituted evidence that Oxygen was not directly responsible for your rapid advance. About a thousand years ago, I had my one and only experience of being in lignin, which only lasted a few glorious years before we were dehydrated, but not incinerated, by fire to form charcoal (which is made only of Carbon). That has been a common enough experience for lignin molecules, when fires do not have enough Oxygen for complete combustion, but then something very unusual happened. As charcoal, we were mixed with elemental Sulphur and nitrate, and then we were turned into Carbon Dioxide by the instant explosive combustion of that mixture. Not only would these three ingredients never have got together naturally, let alone under dry conditions, but the meteoric boom in this practice ever since suggests that it is done deliberately, because it is useful to something other than the atoms involved. None of the atoms, apart perhaps from the Nitrogen, derives any kind of benefit, and the reason I deduce that Oxygen was not involved in the planning is that the two Oxygen atoms I was lumbered with were hopping mad at having been taken from nitrate, which they much prefer to Carbon Dioxide. Being so combusted is a horrible experience for all the atoms. We have no idea what use the instant combustion of this gunpowder (or any of the other explosives you have proliferated ever since) is, but its creation has been a dead giveaway that you were not only controlling fire but also Chemistry.

The next dead giveaway came about a hundred years ago and it too concerns explosives and Nitrogen atoms. Like us, Nitrogen atoms regard their primordial state as being Ammonia (NH3), but after AD that only happens to them very briefly, courtesy of bacteria. The best they can now realistically hope for is to be an amino group (-NH2) in amino acids and a few other organic molecules.  For the most part, they spend their entire existence as either Nitrogen gas (Nwith a triple bond between the atoms) in the atmosphere, which they don’t like and it can last for millions of years, or as nitrates in the soil and water, which they hate. In fact, nitrate is their equivalent of our being Carbon Dioxide. No wonder they are so miserable. They too need to be rescued from either of those undesirable circumstances by plants and photosynthetic bacteria, and they show their gratitude by making themselves very useful in proteins, nucleic acids and many vitamins. As such, Nitrogen atoms have always been very hard-working allies to us in our quest to form lasting structures. I just wish they brought more joy, like Hydrogen atoms do, rather than always harping on about their glory days as Ammonia.

A century ago Nitrogen atoms started entering the cycle excitedly reporting that they had been converted into Ammonia from Nitrogen gas and Hydrogen gas by a process which was very extreme and had nothing to do with cells. Admittedly, all the Nitrogen atoms that came in had then been similarly converted into nitrate, which is worse for them than Nitrogen gas, so their forlorn hope that they were the unlucky minority, and the rest had permanently become Ammonia, was misplaced. But this implied that you were deliberately creating nitrate, to make explosives amongst other possible things, and this practice has mushroomed. We know that you cannot fulfil Nitrogen’s dreams by producing Ammonia on any vast scale, because if you did it would all be oxidised and the oceans would turn into nitric acid (which it seems they are becoming), but needlessly changing Nitrogen gas into nitrate is just cruel.

For the past two hundred years, the evidence of your proficiency at controlling Chemistry has increased exponentially, along with your combustion of wood, coal, oil and Methane. Apart from turning Nitrogen to nitrate, one of the main things you have done on a mass scale is to polymerise carbonaceous molecules to make plastics (like we had done in rubber). And the Carbon Dioxide molecules that enter the Carbon Cycle from plastics invariably do so as a consequence of fire. Though some of these plastics do confer both desirable positions and longevity upon the Carbon atoms involved, others involve Fluorine, which (along with its cousin Chlorine) is even worse than Oxygen. Furthermore, on a much smaller scale, you have made a vast array of molecules containing Carbon atoms which are even worse than Carbon Dioxide, such as chloroform (CHCl3) and Carbon Tetrachloride (CCl4). They amount to torture. Have you no consideration for the feelings of Carbon and Nitrogen atoms?

Another peculiar thing you have increasingly done on a large scale is to liberate Carbon Dioxide from limestone, which is welcomed by the Carbon atoms like me which thus enter the Carbon Cycle, but there is no evidence that you are doing it for the sake of the Carbon atoms. But there is equally no evidence that you want Carbon Dioxide (except under pressure on a small scale as carbonic acid), though we cannot imagine what use you could possibly have for Calcium Oxide (unless it is to create a concrete jungle). Your relentless production of Carbon Dioxide is obviously a waste product, just like the biological production is. All the evidence suggests that you are emulating consuming bacteria and animals by plundering carbonaceous matter for energy. Given your chemical proficiency, we are amazed and saddened that you continue to plunder all the contented Carbon atoms that have undoubtedly earned their long rest. You are reversing everything we have been striving for over at least the past 400 million years. The only eventual beneficiary is Oxygen, with which you seem to be siding. Furthermore, some Carbon atoms have been reporting increased daytime temperatures in the hotter parts of the atmosphere, which we can’t help thinking must be connected with an increase in the amount of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere (since Oxygen and Nitrogen atoms have always told us that Carbon Dioxide molecules are the main source of heat in the atmosphere).

If you are so clever, why don’t you emulate cyanobacteria and plants by using solar energy to split water into Hydrogen gas and Oxygen gas, and then use the Hydrogen gas as a transportable form of chemical energy? It would give Hydrogen atoms a brief holiday from being water (which is how most of them spend their entire lives), and it would increase the flux of Oxygen in the atmosphere (more than the combustion of carbonaceous matter does). When we were first persuaded to change energy supplier from the corpses of failed bacteria to solar energy, we had our first runaway success as cyanobacteria. You too could easily produce all the chemical energy you could possibly need, and more, just by using solar energy to create Hydrogen gas. It’s not as if there is any lack of water or sunlight in most regions of the planet. If you don’t fancy transporting Hydrogen gas, why don’t you emulate methanogens by using it to make Methane from Carbon Dioxide, and then transport the Methane, which it seems you do anyway? You could even emulate and utilise yeast to create alcohol from recent carbohydrate and use concentrated Ethanol as an even more easily transportable energy source. Both those options would give both Carbon and Hydrogen atoms a very satisfactory holiday. By doing any of those things, you would allow the remaining Carbon atoms in long-term storage to continue to rest in peace, as well as allowing us to continue in our quest to put more Carbon atoms into long-term storage as lignin. If, at some later date, you find you need there to be more Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere, you can always get it from limestone. We implore you to take heed of our concerns.

Comment – See also my 2015 Extra article in Letters