Carbon Goes Wild: The Global Warming Story

Apr 18, 2011

Well, it's that time of year. Friday is Earth Day, and this is the week that some of us pause to ponder the health of our planet (while others of us spend the week yelling at the people who are pausing to ponder the health of the planet). Being a pauser, not a yeller, I thought I'd spend this week sharing with you, especially the younger set of you, a series of cartoon essays about ... carbon. Why carbon?

"Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life."

It's everywhere. As I say in this first of these five videos — we'll do one each day this week, so tell the kids if they're interested — when we examine any living thing, big, little, teensy weensy or, like viruses, even teenier than teensy weensy, we always find carbon.

Carbon's special skill is its extraordinary ability to bond with other atoms. It's just about the friendliest element in the periodic table, always grabbing and holding onto other atoms, which is why it is so suited for life. Living things come in so many shapes — blades of grass, enormous whales, spirally vines, single-celled dots — and carbon can make them all. It forms sheets, curls, loops, chains, spheres; whatever you need, carbon provides.

But carbon's strengths, as we shall see later in the week, can come back to haunt us.

Global warming, we argue in these cartoons, is a reflection of carbon's atomic personality and its molecular structure, which is to say that one reason we have a global warming problem is that carbon ... how can I put this? ... likes to party.

OddTodd is a nom de cartoon of a guy who has been my drawing partner for many, many years; his work can be seen at; his mind is on display at (Very serious people think twice before visiting.) Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit