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 archeology 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 colorful 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.