Ocean biogeochemical and ecosystem processes are linked by net primary production (NPP) in the ocean's surface layer, where inorganic carbon is fixed by photosynthetic processes. Determinations of NPP are necessarily a function of phytoplankton biomass and its physiological status, but the estimation of these two terms from space has remained an elusive target. Here we present new satellite ocean color observations of phytoplankton carbon (C) and chlorophyll (Chl) biomass and show that derived Chl:C ratios closely follow anticipated physiological dependencies on light, nutrients, and temperature. With this new information, global estimates of phytoplankton growth rates (μ) and carbon-based NPP are made for the first time. Compared to an earlier chlorophyll-based approach, our carbon-based values are considerably higher in tropical oceans, show greater seasonality at middle and high latitudes, and illustrate important differences in the formation and demise of regional algal blooms. This fusion of emerging concepts from the phycological and remote sensing disciplines has the potential to fundamentally change how we model and observe carbon cycling in the global oceans.