The phrase "carbon-based life forms," often used in science-fiction books and movies by aliens to describe the creatures of Earth, is something of a cliché. It is also a redundancy when applied to creatures on Earth, the only planet known to support life: all living things contain carbon. Carbon is also in plenty of things that were once living, which makes it useful for dating the remains of past settlements on Earth. Of even greater usefulness is petroleum, a substance containing carbon-based forms that died long ago, became fossilized, and ultimately changed chemically into fuels. Then again, not all materials containing carbon were once living creatures; yet because carbon is a common denominator to all living things on Earth, the branch of study known as organic chemistry is devoted to the study of compounds containing carbon. Among the most important organic compounds are the many carboxylic acids that are vital to life, but carbon is also present in numerous important inorganic compounds—most notably carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

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