All chemical elements are special, but some are more special than others. Of the 88 naturally occurring, long-lived elements on Earth, carbon stands alone. As the basis of all biomolecules, no other element contributes so centrally to the wellbeing and sustainability of life on Earth, including our human species. The near-surface carbon cycle profoundly affects Earth’s changeable climate, the health of ecosystems, the availability of inexpensive energy, and the resilience of the environment. No other element plays a role in so diverse an array of useful solid, liquid, and gaseous materials: food and fuels; paints and dyes; paper and plastics;...

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