Carbon structure has fascinated me since I first studied its two major allotropes in high school. I thought about how explain the chemistry behind in a simple way and I had the idea of this story. The time scale isn’t precise, and the same holds for the processes that cause carbon to become one thing or the other. I just meant to give some clue on molecular structures and their practical implications (hardness, electrical properties). After writing it, I happened to read The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, where he gives another fiction story of a carbon atom (surely better than mine), but I swear I didn’t know about it before.

Once upon a time, an element was born from the stars: it was Carbon, Helium’s evolution through the Triple-alpha process. As soon as he could, Carbon started travelling through the interstellar space looking for a place to settle down. While wandering, he saw this nice planet, coloured in blue and green and brown and surrounded by white fluffy clouds. Planet Earth. Carbon thought he had found his home, so he started landing. He found himself on the ground, with trees and mountains all around; he was tired for the long journey, and he needed a shelter to rest a bit. He saw a cave and began his descent. He rolled down until he found a bare space in the darkness. After a while, it all started to tremble, and the walls of the cave suddenly fell down. Carbon was sleeping, but he woke up because he started feeling uncomfortable: it was so hot down there, he started feeling under pressure. His body was changing, he could feel it and it made him worried and anxious. But what could he do to escape? There was no way, but waiting for something else to happen, to rescue him. Millenniums passed, Carbon was losing his hopes… and then, he felt a sudden pressure relief. Ah, finally! The air, the sun… wait, what are these shimmering lights? Where they come from? Me?!? Carbon couldn’t believe his eyes; he was gleaming in the sunlight: all that pressure and heat turned him into a diamond. A small one but a very nice one, indeed. Then, someone took him from his place. He was carried along the wood, and then in a city, and then in a boutique, where he was nestled in a gold ring, right his size. He was so hard now; he wouldn’t have fitted anywhere. Some days passed and he was bought by a gentleman for his fiancée. So, Carbon had now an owner: what did this really mean? He quickly found out it meant being most of the time on a velvet pad in a box, but sometimes he was put on the lady’s finger and taken out to luxurious locations. Carbon liked all that. He stayed years with that lady, then he was given to the lady’s daughter, which in her old age gave him to her son for her daughter-in-law and so on. Centuries later, he went lost. He was alone in this big abandoned house, for ages. He relaxed, and he felt other changes were taking place in his structure; he was softening. To be pedantic, his sp3 orbitals were becoming sp2 ones, his tetrahedrons were turning into plans of hexagons. Let alone by himself, he experienced new powers: he could no longer gleam, but he left a grey trace on his way when he moved, and he could feel electricity flowing through him. Millions of years after his arrival, Carbon had finally found his equilibrium: passing through the sparkling but metastable diamond, he was now become the more modest but stable and more useful grafite.

About Serena Cozzolino

I'm a chemist struggling to find my "equilibrium conditions". I love science, art, literature, music... and lately in my free time I'm studying French. I'm shy but curious, I always try to understand how things work but also why people behave like they do... which is far more challenging than understanding a chemical reaction!