Carbon, Medicine, Public Health, and Clark Kent

Clarkkent-secretoriginI remember as a child in the 1960’s watching my favorite series, Superman. In one episode, Superman (also Clark Kent sans Glasses) crushed a piece of coal and made a Diamond for Lois Lane. I remember at the time thinking that was pretty cool. Of course, I was 7. We know that while the carbon that makes up Diamond and the carbon that makes up coal are the same, coal has numerous impurities that would not allow the formation of a clear diamond crystal. Diamond, the hardest naturally occurring substance, has much more in common with Graphite, one of the softest.

In diamond, the carbon atoms are arranged in a tetrahedral, that is, each carbon atom is attached to four other carbon atoms at angles of 109.5 degrees. The result is a strong, rigid three-dimensional structure resulting in a network of atoms. The carbon atoms have strong chemical bonds to four other carbon atoms throughout the crystal. This accounts for diamond’s hardness, extraordinary strength, and durability.

In graphite, the carbon atoms are arranged in hexagons and are attached to only three other carbon atoms at angles of 120 degrees. The result is a layered, soft structure as graphite forms soft sheets of atoms, which easily slide off. When you’re writing with a pencil on paper, it’s these sheets that are sliding apart to leave the graphite chunks behind as a mark on the paper.

If we look at the periodic table of elements, we can see there is but one element known as Carbon. It is classified as a Non-metal and is the sixth most common element found in nature. Carbon, along with hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur, is required for terrestrial life. In fact, carbon is the most important element to living organisms because it can form many different kinds of bonds and form essential compounds that are necessary for life.

The carbon atoms that comprise diamond and graphite are the same carbon atoms that create the “backbone” for living cells. The differences are only in how they are arranged, and, in how they are connected. Diamonds have an extremely strong link; graphite, a very weak link, and living organisms have a myriad of carbon-chained links. Carbon is the primary component of macromolecules, including proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, and carbohydrates. While graphite is valued at pennies per pound, diamond at many hundreds of dollars per facet, organic life is priceless.

A strong link is important between atoms to form stable compounds that allow the complexity we see in our world and beyond. Strong linkages are critical not just in materials but in concepts as well. For example, the links between private health and pubic health; in private health, a doctor treats people who are sick, and makes recommendations to help them regain their health, while in public health, doctors and others promote and protect the health of all the people to try to prevent them from getting sick or injured in the first place. Public health professionals also promote wellness by encouraging healthy behaviors.

If you stop to think about it you may ask yourself where does scientific research into new medicines come from? How about new discoveries into diseases like Cancer or infectious diseases like Ebola? Who is it that helps promote education about health and nutrition? What about the hazards in the environment? Who helps people stay healthy when there is pollution in the air and chemicals in the water?

Public health is concerned with the Health of the Public. That can mean vaccinating children and adults to prevent the spread of disease, or educating people about the risks of alcohol and tobacco. Public health sets safety standards to protect workers and develops school nutrition programs to ensure kids have access to healthy food and public health doctors track disease outbreaks, prevent injuries and shed light on why some of us are more likely to suffer from poor health than others. There are many sides to public health, from speaking out for laws that promote smoke-free indoor air, to installing seat belts in cars, to educating school children about ways to stay healthy; public health professionals use the science-based approach to finding solutions to health problems.

Public health saves money, improves the quality of life, helps children thrive, and reduces human suffering. We think Superman would approve.

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