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Tech Q&A

Eric Roston

Describe your latest project.
"Carbon" is the most important word that people know the least about.

I came to this conclusion toward the end of 2003, while covering climate and energy for Time magazine. Carbon had become a media buzzword, but remained an empty signifier. Eager to fill this gap, I left the magazine in early 2006 to write The Carbon Age, which was published this month. The Carbon Age posits that the fastest way to learn the most about ourselves and our world is through the carbon atom. A mainstream nonfiction book, it was designed to intrigue and entertain readers from high-school to retirement. The book embeds industrialization and its climate crisis into evolutionary and geological history — by design an after-the-fact "prequel" to An Inconvenient Truth.

The Carbon Age implicitly sets its sights on U.S. scientific illiteracy. In February 2001, the Hart-Rudman Commission laid out national security threats to the United States over the next 25 years. Seven months later, the commission's first warning, a major terrorist attack, looked eerily prescient. Less frequently remembered is the second threatening trend: Decline in U.S. science and education. Tom Friedman picked up on this thread in The World Is Flat, sorting through the long-term effects of scientific decline on a national economy. The National Academy of Sciences gave the topic a rigorous treatment in its 2005 report, Rising above the Gathering Storm. These three works raise, but do not answer, the question: What actual science is missing from public discourse that might make a dent in scientific illiteracy? The Carbon Age is a rigorous attempt to complement these works, too, by unifying at least a dozen scientific disciplines into one singular story.

  1. The Carbon Age: How Life
    $5.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[T]he sum of the parts of his energetic explanations of carbon's uniqueness brings, for dedicated and attentive readers, a crystal-clear understanding of the global warming process." Publishers Weekly

    "If atomic number 6 could ever write its autobiography, the result might resemble Roston's engaging presentation." Booklist

What inspires you to sit down and write?
Curiosity and the puzzle-solving nature of research and writing. The Carbon Age began with a simple question when I was covering energy and climate, and the steady tick of weekly stories for Time: "Why am I talking about 'carbon' all the time, across many different conversations, and yet no one can really explain what it is?" Once I identified that carbon's story was a missing volume on bookshelves, I was eager to figure out how to tell it. It became an obsession.

Writing a nonfiction book, particularly one that synthesizes an enormous amount of research, is something like a puzzle; you have to discover the pieces, and then discover how they fit together.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
My junior year at Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut, I took "The Humanities" with Sally Kennedy, Jerry Trecker, and David Lyons. It was a transformative class, and it smashed open the world of ideas and books for my fellow students and me. I also learned a lot about writing in that class — a lot of simple rules that I still try to keep in my head now.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
I have taken it now: "27.81065% — Total Geek."

Chess or video games?
Chess, but I wish I were better at it, like Kubrick, Nabokov, or my brother, Joel.

What do you do for relaxation?
Many people have asked me this question over the years, with no satisfying result. Then I discovered scuba diving. But now I have a wife and daughter, and we have just the loveliest time.

What's your favorite blog right now?
This is a very difficult question because the Venn diagram of "Friends" and "Favorite bloggers" shows enormous overlap. Saying one name might alienate all the others! But I will throw into the ring Tom Levenson's Inverse Square blog. Tom's writing style and sensibility found in the blog, his books, and elsewhere resembles what I strive for in my own work.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Douglas Adams. I had to think for a moment about who Scott Adams is. In the Hitchhiker series, the Total Perspective Vortex is a torture machine that blows its victim's mind by revealing his or her exact relevance in the scheme of the Universe. I loved (almost) every second of writing The Carbon Age, but it was also sort of a Total Perspective Vortex.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
When I was a kid, the answer was indisputably Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar. It still holds up. It's filled with humor that manages to be warm, absurd, sophisticated — and yet perfect for children. The competition for favorite childhood book is actually tough, too. When my grandmother retired from teaching first grade after 40 years, she opened a children's bookstore in Glencoe, Illinois. So I spent my summers in the store (The Children's Reading Corner) trying to figure out what my favorite book was.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I read Catch-22 for the first time. That book taught me a lot about writing, comedy, and the world in general.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
I would keep an eye on the young field of synthetic biology, which I write about in chapter 11 of The Carbon Age. It may hold answers to many of our biggest issues, from personal health to the global energy infrastructure.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
I will restrict myself to five answers:

  • Any of the five or six people involved in the description and naming of buckminsterfullerene, on September 9-10, 1985.
  • Fred Hoyle, on the day CalTech experimentalists found his predicted resonance level in carbon in 1953.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, on the day he wrote Raskolnikov's dream of the mob beating the horse in Crime and Punishment. I've always wanted to know if he wrote it in half an hour, or did many drafts of it, or thought about it for 40 years and then wrote it in a half an hour. (Note: I wouldn't want to be Dostoevsky for more than one day, and perhaps not that long.)
  • Vladimir Nabokov. He must have had a total field day coming up with all the word games in Lolita.
  • Einstein during the miracle year — the obvious choice and probably the best one.
  • What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
    Cook and clean.

    By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
    There will be a concentrated acceleration of science and technology in the world's great thought centers — while much of the world copes (or doesn't) with the droughts, agricultural crises, storms, and consequential geopolitical decline made real by global warming.

    Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In 10 years?
    The U.S. is the world leader and should be for the foreseeable future.

    ÷ ÷ ÷

    Eric Roston covered technology, international trade, and energy issues at Time magazine for six years and contributed to Time's special issue about September 11, which won a National Magazine Award in 2002. The Carbon Age is his first book. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter.

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