9 Mar 2022

Review - Carbon

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 9 March 2022

Carbon: The Unauthorized Biography is a documentary about "the least understood element on Earth". It features a parade of big-name scientists and Australian actor Sarah Snook as the voice of Carbon.

Simon Morris: I'm not quite sure what possessed me to see a documentary about - among other things - global warming, with a title that seemed a little too cute for its own good.

It's called Carbon: The Unauthorized Biography, and both the title and the group of experts adopt a sort of "play way" to education. You know, you'll be so entertained you won't even notice you're learning stuff.

Fat chance! Speaking as someone who's had experts of all levels of playfulness attempt to drill the basics of science into me, I think I'm pretty much a lost cause.

Particularly when this film adopts an arch, "life of the party" characterization of the element Carbon.

Adding wokie-ness to hokie-ness, Carbon throughout is always referred to as "she". Of all the pronouns in all the universe she has to come into mine.

And more - "she"'s actually played by actress Sarah Snook.

That's right, this isn't just the Unauthorized Biography of Carbon. At times it's the Totally Unasked-for Autobiography.

Though I should add that references to "most misunderstood element" grossly overestimates my knowledge of any of them. It was all news to me when I was told that the first ones were Helium and Hydrogen.

I gather that Carbon turned up shortly afterwards and showed a propensity for fusing with other elements. At least I think that's the case. Despite the enthusiasm of celebrity scientists like astro-physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, I did nod off a few times.

Anyway, Carbon gets a bad rap, thanks to some of these hasty compounds.

One thing I did learn, and was rather fascinated by, was that on Earth, in Western Australia in fact, there are some of the oldest rocks - I think I've got this right - in the universe.

All this seems to be brushing rather close to the - to me - totally uncrackable riddle of the Big Bang. I know nothing about this, nor do I wish to. Even writing down the seven letters of its name makes my head spin.

So instead, I'm prepared to explore some of the more recent aspects of biochemistry, so long as it doesn't get too cosmic.

Unfortunately I seem to fly in the face of most scientists with this attitude. The more cosmic the better, as far as Neil deGrasse Tyson and his friends are concerned.

Amidst all the physics and cosmology and what dear old Doctor Who calls "timey-wimey stuff", the bits that stayed with me most were the least carbon-dependent.

As the scientific pessimists started wrestling with the End of Civilization As We Know It, it was fascinating to be reminded just how long civilization's been going on.

We - homo sapiens - have been making a nuisance of ourselves on Earth for half a million years or so. But civilization - agriculture, houses, inventing and the rest - that's been a mere 14 thousand years, mostly dependent on the luxury of reasonably clement weather.

Without that - and most of the contributors to Carbon: The Unauthorized Biography seem unanimous that that's what we're looking at - all bets will be off.

Well, frankly I might leave the solving of that riddle to these people. I'd like to think they know the answer - they certainly sound as if they do.

The only difficulty is that their leaders - our leaders - have all been put in power by people every bit as ignorant as me.