The chemical origin of soot is a persistent puzzle. It is clear that small hydrocarbon fragments formed in flames must aggregate into larger particles, but the initial driving force for aggregation remains a mystery. Johansson et al. combined theory and mass spectrometry to suggest a solution based on resonance-stabilized radicals (see the Perspective by Thomson and Mitra). Aromatics such as cyclopentadiene have a characteristically weak C–H bond because their cleavage produces radicals with extended spans of π-electron conjugation. Clusters thus build up through successive coupling reactions that extend conjugation in stabilized radicals of larger and larger size.