This is carbon. And of all chemical elements in the Universe, it’s one of the most plentiful. So what would happen if all of it suddenly disappeared for five seconds?
How would this little change affect our Universe? Could it reverse climate change here on Earth? And why would your own body never be the same again?
Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the Universe. And it’s part of many things, including you. That’s right. Your body is 18% carbon. That’s a pretty big chunk of you to lose, even for 5 seconds.
Carbon is so important because it forms chemical bonds with many different elements. In your body, carbon bonds with other elements to form proteins, fats, sugars and even your DNA. So if carbon suddenly disappeared, would you disappear too?
You might think that five seconds without carbon wouldn’t be long enough to wreak havoc in our Universe. But let me tell you, once all the carbon disappeared, nothing would be the same again.
Let’s go from big to small. First, the Universe. Space dust that surrounds stars is made of elements like carbon and iron.
This dust is clumped together by the strong winds coming from stars. And eventually, these clusters of dust form into planets. Many planetary systems in the Universe are carbon-rich. That means they could have graphite crusts, carbon monoxide atmospheres and even oceans of tar.
Without carbon, these worlds would only be silicon and oxygen. The planets would crumble and turn back into space dust. Maybe they would reassemble back into planets again once all the carbon reappears five seconds later. But this would take millions, possibly billions, of years. And whatever life has formed on those worlds would have to begin evolving from ground zero.
Our planetary system is a little different because it is oxygen-rich. It has twice as much oxygen as carbon. That’s because when our Solar System was forming, all the carbon got blown into deep space. At first, the Earth didn’t have any carbon in it.
The carbon that made life possible on Earth came from interstellar comets and asteroids. And if this extraterrestrial carbon were to disappear for five seconds, some bad things would happen.
First, the carbon cycle would immediately stop. Under normal circumstances, carbon cycles through living things, water and the atmosphere. This is happening all the time through things like photosynthesis, decomposition and respiration.
So if we stopped eating, digesting and breathing carbon, sure, we’d be reducing our carbon emissions by a lot. But in this case, it would be too much. Without any carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, we’d lose the greenhouse effect, which keeps our planet warm and makes life possible.
Our climate would radically change.The average temperatures would plummet and everything would freeze. Solids made of pure carbon like diamonds, coal and graphite would disappear immediately, since that’s all they are.
You’d find that washing your clothes, dishes and body would suddenly be more challenging too. Carbon is a common water-soluble additive that creates the soapy lather you love so much. Without it, most of these household products would become mostly just water.
But you know what? Cleaning your body might be the least of your worries. Carbon is the second most abundant element in your body. And your primary energy source comes from breaking carbon bonds.
That means your body wouldn’t be able to extract energy from compounds like glucose. For that matter, glucose wouldn’t exist anymore. It would become water. Carbon is the backbone of your DNA’s structure. Without it, your DNA would fall apart and wouldn’t be able to tell your cells how to grow and function.
Almost 2 trillion of your body’s cells divide every day, which is essential to your life. Take carbon out of the mix, and these cells would stop working. And this wouldn’t only affect your DNA. If carbon disappeared, it would affect all the proteins, fats and muscle tissues in your body too.
Without any carbon in the Universe, your body would fall apart. You’d be a sloppy mess of water and inert compounds.
Ugh. Somebody bring a mop. You, Earth and the Universe would be destroyed in those five short seconds. Maybe five seconds without gravity would be easier to live with.
- “Facts About Carbon”. Stephanie Pappas. 2017. livescience.com.
- “Could There Be Life Without Carbon? (Video) – Astrobiology”. 2021. astrobiology.com.
- “Carbon | Boundless Biology”. 2021. courses.lumenlearning.com.
- “CARBON IS …”. 2021. Courtney White.
- “What Are the Elements in the Human Body?”. Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. 2021. Thoughtco.