Carbon is awesome.
No, seriously. We’re made of it, all our relatives (e.g. every other living thing on the planet) is made of it, it can take all sorts of crazy forms, and it can be used to do all sorts of crazy things. I mean all sorts of crazy things, well into the realm of science fiction. Read below the fold.
All forms of carbon are extremely stable. Three naturally occurring isotopes exist, one of which — Carbon-14, or radiocarbon — is radioactive with a half-life of 5730 years, giving us the ability to rough-estimate (with a reasonable degree of accuracy the younger it is) how old any piece of organic material is, up until roughly 60,000 years ago. Carbon-14 would have disappeared entirely long ago, save for cosmic rays bombarding our planet from the reaches of outer space — new radiocarbon is created by those cosmic rays hitting nitrogen in our atmosphere. This radiocarbon is taken into plants, which get in turn taken into animals (non-marine animals anyway), and thus we are constantly exchanging radiocarbon with our environment as long as we’re alive. Once we’re dead though, you can then tell how long it’s been since death by the amount of radiocarbon that’s decayed into nitrogen-14.
Of course, after that 60,000 year line, there’s no carbon left in the object, meaning carbon dating only works so far. Young Earth creationasshats often use this as a line of argument suggesting the world can’t possibly be more than 6000 years old, specifically because of, as an example, snails whose shells are built out of older carbon from riverbeds where new radiocarbon is not available to them. I don’t know why I keep mentioning this, but creationists are full of shit, end of line. A proper argument against them shall be forthcoming, but in the meantime, have this Youtube video.
Carbon has a lot of different allotropes — that is, molecular structures taken on by the pure element by virtue of specific geometrical patterns formed by the covalent bonds. Graphite, coal (“amorphous carbon”) and diamonds come to mind immediately. But there’s a whole lot more. Each allotrope of an element can have drastically different properties and can be used for drastically different purposes. My favorite of the bunch is the Buckyball, or buckminsterfullerine, named after the American architect Buckminster Fuller who used similar structures in his work. It’s an allotrope of 60 carbon molecules organized to look identical to a soccer ball (if you fill in the gaps, of course — these are on atomic scales, remember). And it can be used to create three-dimensional polymers, derivative materials with molecule substitution, and since each Buckyball is hollow, other atoms can be trapped inside them. Also, an experiment has shown that a water-soluble derivative of Buckyballs fit into the side of the HIV virus, inhibiting its functions. Seriously, they’re applicable as a treatment for AIDS. I shit you not. It’s not a full-out cure, but it’s used presently to keep chronically infectable cells from getting hit again.
Graphite is made of thin sheets of carbon bonded to each other, but each sheet not bonded to the next. What do you get if you fold one end of a sheet up, and connect it to the other end? Why, a carbon nanotube. They can be created from Buckyballs relatively easily, and they have interesting properties too — like their extremely high, diamond-rivalling tensile strength (as long as flaws aren’t introduced in the creation process), making them a topic of research for both architecture and textiles (think: bulletproof and spaceproof clothing). They can be used in a ton of novel and interesting ways, for instance in electronics, water and air filtration, and drug delivery, being that, for all intents and purposes, they are “one-dimensional” conduits for atoms — that is, atoms can travel along only one axis of the tube and the tube’s size can be manipulated through the manufacturing process. And another interesting potential application that’s just been discovered, is the use of nanotubes instead of platinum as the catalyst in a hydrogen fuel engine. Once nanotubes are more easily manufactured, they could not only be used to manufacture the engine for your hydrogen car, they could also be the gas tank and the structure.
I’m telling you guys, if you have a choice of career path still, do whatever you can to get into researching carbon nanotubes. Therein lies the future.