Childhood memories of a Carbon atom
Actually, come to think of it, “life” may not be the most fitting term. To be considered alive, I’d have to meet several criteria —being able to breathe, excrete, reproduce, react to the outside world, grow older and wiser, and so on — and I don’t quite meet any of them.
I am a Carbon atom.
And this is the story of my…existence, shall we say?
This is the story of my existence.
We can begin by rewinding a tad. 13.7 billion years, if we’re getting specific, because that’s just about when I popped into being.
The universe was a cold, dark place, punctuated only by the occasional formations of scorching stars. It was before this delightful backdrop that I was born, right in the heart of one of those stars. Three Helium atoms collided, and there I was. Me, Carbon, atomic number 6.
Remember that 6, it’s important.
It’s my identity.
Carbon is an element. And each element — Hydrogen, Helium, and Praseodymium to name a few — is made up of a different kind of atom. Each atom, in turn, is made up of many particles, but these come in only three varieties: protons, neutrons, and electrons. Each element’s atoms have a different combination of the three kinds, and total numbers vary from just one to hundreds.
The number of protons, however, is most important. The number of protons an atom has distinguishes it from atoms of other elements. So important is the number of protons, it’s often called by a much grander name: the Atomic Number.
My atomic number, like that of all other carbon atoms, is six. If any atom has six protons, it must be a carbon. If any atom is carbon, it must have six protons.
A simple rule that rules my life.
So, we’ve covered birth and we’ve covered name. On to childhood, adolescence and beyond.
For starters, I was hurtled out into space, thrown to the far reaches of this universe. For an eternity — or what certainly felt like one — I was just there. I did nothing. I went nowhere. I was suspended by nothing in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by a big, black, blank emptiness.
Then, I felt a pull.
Gravity. Tugging me toward a molecular cloud, where I was thrust into a number of reactions and transformations. Although I had changed an immense number of times, when it was all over, I was still myself. Six protons. Six electrons.
4.6 billion years ago, that cloud collapsed on itself under its own weight. Attached to a chunk of red-hot debris, I was flung through space once more. That chunk was Earth.
But the Earth of that time looked nothing like it does now. Back then, it had no water, no atmosphere, and no humans. Those would all take millions of years to form.
At the time, Earth, along with innumerable other nuggets of debris, fell into orbit around a bright yellow star — the Sun.
Then, everything else fell into place. Earth got its oceans and atmosphere. It began to look less like a blob of reactions and more like the spheroid we know today. I combined with oxygen and water in the atmosphere (humans called it “dilute carbonic acid”, I believe) and fell as rain.
After an age, I escaped the oceans only about 50 million years ago, only to fall as rain once more. This time, I landed up in a Carboniferous swamp. There, I was covered in rocks and dead organic matter, and subjected to mind-bending temperatures and pressure.
I underwent many changes here too, but the changes stuck this time around. I became coal.
A short while later, I was dug out by the newly evolved Homo sapiens and sent along to a thermal power plant. Under the intense heat, I was forced to detach from the coal lattice and rose into the atmosphere, combining with hydrogen along the way.
Carbon atoms in the atmosphere take part in something known to humans as the ‘greenhouse effect’.
The sun’s rays reach the Earth as light. The planet absorbs them, and, a time later, reflects them back as longer heat waves. Carbon dioxide, among other gases such as methane and water vapour, tend to absorb and reflect heat rather than let it pass through. So, a collection of these gases in the Stratosphere do just that: trap heat and stop them from leaving the Earth.
All this trapped heat in the atmosphere serves to heat up the planet, in what you call ‘global warming’.
To some extent, humans only benefit from the carbon dioxide in the air; without it, Earth would be up to 30 degrees cooler and basically unlivable. But, beyond a point — a point that was passed a long time ago—the extra heat starts causing problems. The positive turns into a negative.
Too much of a good thing, and all that.
So, naturally, I became a part of this layer, and helped warm your planet for a bit. Then, I floated back down. I was inhaled and exhaled by billions of people billions of times. I have seen the insides of some of the most well-known people that ever lived.
Very recently — so recently, it seems like a second to me — I was taken in by a tomato plant.
So, that’s been my existence so far. What next? Only time will tell.
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