Life on Earth would not be possible without carbon. All known living things are carbon-based, and there is a good reason for that. Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe, and it’s also plentiful in Earth’s crust. That means there is plenty of it to form life. It’s the second most abundant element in the human body, after oxygen. However, that abundance is a carbon miracle because it demonstrates precise fine-tuning of the cosmic creation event known as the big bang.
First, let’s look at the qualities of carbon that make it so useful for life. Carbon can form more compounds than any other element. That’s because it is the smallest element that has four valence electrons. As we said in our discussion of oxygen, all atoms look for eight electrons to complete their valence shell. Carbon can form covalent bonds by sharing electrons with up to four other atoms to complete that shell.
Furthermore, the energy required to make or break those bonds is at the exact level to build large and complex molecules with both the stability and reactivity necessary for life. Carbon atoms are also lighter because they are smaller than the other atoms with four valence electrons. Their small and lightweight qualities allow enzymes to manipulate the organic molecules formed around carbon atoms. Metabolism requires the manipulation of organic molecules.
Carbon can combine with other carbon atoms to form macromolecules that life requires. Without carbon, there would be no proteins or DNA. Because of its unique qualities, carbon can form hydrocarbons such as sugar, lipids, and alcohols for storing energy in living organisms. Without carbon, there could be no life functions such as breathing, digestion, excretion, or reproduction. In other words, there could be no life. Some scientists have suggested the possibility of silicon-based life somewhere in the universe. However, there are numerous problems with the “rock people” concept, and there is no evidence to support it.
But what is the carbon miracle? According to Fermilab, it is “miraculous” that carbon exists. The cosmic creation event known as the big bang formed only the elements hydrogen, helium, and lithium. Clouds of hydrogen and helium gas came together because of gravity to form stars that collapsed and became hot enough to fuse some pairs of helium nuclei with two protons each into beryllium with four protons. The next step would be to fuse one more helium nucleus to form carbon with its six protons.
That is where there seemed to be a roadblock. The beryllium isotope is so unstable that it decays back into two helium atoms in a ten-thousandth of a trillionth of a second. However, scientists found that the carbon nucleus has an “internally excited short-lived state” that allows the miraculous microsecond bonding to take place. According to scientists, as reported by Fermilab, “Amazingly, if the strength of the nuclear force between protons and neutrons after the Big Bang were different by less than 1%, carbon would be extremely rare, and the universe would be devoid of life.”
That is the carbon miracle, and we don’t think it was an accident that the creation event was fine-tuned. English astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle first suggested the unique quality of the carbon nucleus that made it possible for carbon to come into existence. Hoyle was an agnostic, but seeing the fine-tuning of the creation, he wrote, “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.” (Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections”) We believe that “superintellect” is God.
— Roland Earnst © 2022