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Life's Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos [Hardcover]

by Peter M. Hoffmann
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 30, 2012 0465022537 978-0465022533 First Edition
Life is an enduring mystery. Yet, science tells us that living beings are merely sophisticated structures of lifeless molecules. If this view is correct, where do the seemingly purposeful motions of cells and organisms originate? In Life’s Ratchet, physicist Peter M. Hoffmann locates the answer to this age-old question at the nanoscale.

Below the calm, ordered exterior of a living organism lies microscopic chaos, or what Hoffmann calls the molecular storm—specialized molecules immersed in a whirlwind of colliding water molecules. Our cells are filled with molecular machines, which, like tiny ratchets, transform random motion into ordered activity, and create the “purpose” that is the hallmark of life. Tiny electrical motors turn electrical voltage into motion, nanoscale factories custom-build other molecular machines, and mechanical machines twist, untwist, separate and package strands of DNA. The cell is like a city—an unfathomable, complex collection of molecular workers working together to create something greater than themselves.

Life, Hoffman argues, emerges from the random motions of atoms filtered through these sophisticated structures of our evolved machinery. We are agglomerations of interacting nanoscale machines more amazing than anything in science fiction. Rather than relying on some mysterious “life force” to drive them—as people believed for centuries—life’s ratchets harness instead the second law of thermodynamics and the disorder of the molecular storm.

Grounded in Hoffmann’s own cutting-edge research, Life’s Ratchet reveals the incredible findings of modern nanotechnology to tell the story of how the noisy world of atoms gives rise to life itself.

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Life's Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos + The Machinery of Life + What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology
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Editorial Reviews


Physics Today
“[A] fascinating glimpse into recent research on molecular machines, research that lies at the intersection of biology, chemistry, and physics.... Life’s Ratchet does an excellent job of conveying the tension between mechanical descriptions of molecular machines...and the chemical perspective.... I highly recommend this book to scientists in the fields of biophysics and nanoscience as a readable introduction to a broad variety of topics in those areas.”

The Scientist
“What distinguishes life from its nonliving ingredients? How could life arise from the lifeless? These questions have vexed philosophers sand scientists for more than 2,500 years. Bio-besotted physicist Peter Hoffmann wrote Life’s Ratchet to get to the beating heart of the matter. After a lively, lucid grand tour of the controversy’s history...Hoffmann arrives at modern molecular biology and the technological breakthroughs, such as atomic force microscopy, that enable us to see the very atoms of a cell.... A masterwork of making the complex comprehensible, this book would make a smashing freshman biology textbook—and that’s a compliment.”

City Book Review
Life’s Ratchet is nothing short of brilliant. With wit and literary prowess, author Peter M. Hoffmann delivers a profound message about the nature of the life within our lives. He writes with a grace and careful thoughtfulness—the Shakespeare of scientific literacy.”

Physics World, Best Books of 2012
“[A] clearly written book about molecular motors and other nanoscale structures.... It does a very good job of capturing the excitement driving current research on this increasingly important topic.”

Life’s Ratchet engagingly tells the story of how science has begun to realize the potential for matter to spontaneously construct complex processes, such as those inherent to living systems. The book is a good mix of history and the latest concepts, straightforwardly explained…. The book’s important message is that there is a revolution brewing. This revolution will not tell us what matter is made of. Instead, as described in Life’s Ratchet, it will tell us how matter and energy combine to make me and you.”

New Scientist
“In Life’s Ratchet, biophysicist Peter Hoffmann reveals that the secret to life isn’t some mysterious force. Rather, it is chaos itself. Hoffmann provides a ringside perspective on life at its most fundamental level, gained through his work on imaging and manipulating molecules.”

Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“A fascinating mix of cutting-edge science with philosophy and theology.”

Werner R. Loewenstein, author of The Touchstone of Life and Physics in Mind
“Peter Hoffmann brings the universe of the very small to life. Life’s Ratchet is an exciting guide to the wondrous strange nanoworld of molecules driving the machinery of life. Engaging, provocative, and profound.”

John Long, Professor of Biology, Vassar College, and author of Darwin’s Devices
Life’s Ratchet is one of those rare books that pay off one of science’s central promises:  reductionism can explain higher-order phenomenon. While Hoffmann is careful to say that nanoscience hasn’t explained what life is, he demonstrates that it can explain how life works from the bottom up. This is big news, and the exciting reward that Life’s Ratchet provides. Hoffmann’s magic is his ability to plumb the depths of his topic with trenchant metaphors and realistic examples. He is one of those rare scientific experts who can convey, accurately and with verve, the big picture and the small.”

About the Author

Peter M. Hoffmann is a professor of physics and materials science at Wayne State University in Michigan and the founder and director of the university’s Biomedical Physics program. He lives in Saint Clair Shores, Michigan.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (October 30, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465022537
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465022533
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #65,712 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Peter M. Hoffmann (1968-) was born in Germany and grew up in a small village in Saarland. After completing his undergraduate studies in Physics and Mathematics in Germany, he moved to the US for graduate studies in 1992, completing an MS in Physics at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, and a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. He then spent two years at University at Oxford, UK, as a research fellow. In 2001, he joined Wayne State University, Detroit, MI as an Assistant Professor of Physics. In 2008, he co-founded the undergraduate biomedical physics program at Wayne State and served as its director from 2008-2012. He has since been promoted to a full professorship and was appointed Associate Dean for academic programs in 2012. He is an active researcher in soft matter physics, nanoscience and biophysics. One of his passions is promoting science through outreach and writing. "Life's Ratchet" (2012) is his first popular science book.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an absolutely amazing book.

For millennia, there has been a sense that living matter is somehow different from ordinary matter. There had to be some kind of vital force, something outside the well understood laws of physics and chemistry. For centuries, the challenge stood, even as scientists discovered cells, organic synthesis, genes and protein structure.

Then science reached the nanoscale. In the late 1980s and early 1990s a new class of microscope opened up the world of the nanometer. Individual molecules could be viewed, first statically, then in motion. New techniques could mark individual molecules and tweezers made of light beams opened a new area to experimentation and measurement. At the nanoscale biology, chemistry and physics converge. Living creatures are made of tiny machines.

These machines are made of molecules. They operate in a veritable storm of random motion and random collisions, and it is this storm that provides the energy for living motion - cellular motion, genetic manipulation and chemical transport. The second law of thermodynamics has this random motion effectively useless, unable to drive directed activity, but there is a loophole. Energy can be used to destroy information, to forget and reset molecular state. In cells, this energy is provided by ATP losing a phosphorous atom and converting to ADP. It seems insignificant, but at the nanoscale this minuscule jump burns at 7000 degrees. It is these fiery sparks of forgetfulness that drive life's ratchet and make life possible.

This book is a biophysicists manifesto. There has been a critical convergence in our understanding of living systems. We can look at the mysterious vital force up close and understand it.
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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Profound Idea Illustrated With Too Much Detail January 20, 2013
This book was a little frustrating and thus I struggled with the rating. I settled on 4 stars because while I think the good in this book is very very good, I believe it simply is too detailed and filled with too much biochemical explanation to appeal to most readers.

The book starts out with some history of science that while interesting seems tangential to the main idea in the book. But it soon got going with that idea - that the process of life is driven by molecular machines. And that these machines harvest the random motion of atoms and ratchet into work that drives the cellular processes that constitute life. This was all excellent. This is a rather profound idea and it is persuasively argued in the book. I loved it.

However a good chunk of the second half of the book was taken up with much too detailed descriptions of examples of these processes. While I found the initial examples interesting it just went on too long and got too technical. It's possible to understand it with careful reading but I found myself wondering why? I already got the point. At this point the book became too specialized.

I found the last couple of chapters inspiring and an excellent summary of the main idea without all the technical details.

So, I think this book deserves very high marks for its insights, but tried to be too much for the general reader. You can have a fairly technical book or a popular book but it's hard to mix the two and I think in this case the author tried and failed.

However, I still strongly recommend this book with the above warning in mind. If you don't like technical explanations you will be very frustrated with parts of this book. On the other hand the ideas and insights related to the main thesis are brilliantly argued.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
One of the enduring mysteries of life -- how we moved from a cold inanimate world to one teeming with life and purpose - at least in principle, finally has been solved.

In this book by a physicist (who admits to having no biological training), Peter Hoffman finds the answer to this most forbidding of all of mankind's questions. According to him, the answer lies not in deep philosophical or religious speculation, but in Darwin's natural selection and the intricacies of the second law of thermodynamics as they combine and work together at the atomic, molecular and cellular levels. He discovered that amid the storm of chaos that goes on at the atomic level, there emerges from colliding water molecules, machine-like components capable of spontaneously converting one form of energy into another.

These components are tiny machines (nano-machines, as it were) that act like nano-scale electrical motors, operating on electrical voltages found in water, and which, in addition to being able to change one form of energy into another, are also capable of rendering order to the chaos we find at the atomic level. Our cells are filled with these tiny molecular machines that ratchet up the process of transforming random motion into hierarchically ordered cellular activity.

They do this by first operating on electrical voltages, and then by turning those voltages into collections of machines (like themselves), and them into hierarchies of nano-scale factories. These factories go on to custom build other molecular level machinery that together have proceeded down a long evolutionary path, and through many very complicated processes involving natural selection, to produce and package enzymes, peptides, amino acids, and even strains of DNA.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars sometimes interesting but uneven
The general premise of this book - the teeter-totter between order and disorder that life sits on, exploiting the physics of nanoscale to self-assemble stable energy transducers,... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Robert Wright
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for those curious about how life works
I teach biology at a small liberal arts school fairly close to Wayne State University. I appreciated the history explained, the evolution of scientific perspectives described, and... Read more
Published 1 month ago by professorbuffy
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing investigation of the biological machinery used by our cells
Life's Ratchet- How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos covers a host of topics. The author, a physicist by training, investigates what drives life and order at the... Read more
Published 3 months ago by A. Menon
4.0 out of 5 stars It's all molecular machines
I liked this book a lot. Even though it has faults as other reviewers have pointed out, it contains a lesson that I had not found elsewhere, namely that a great deal of how life... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Russ Abbott
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent view of the internal workings of the cell made readily...
This book is an excellent example of a technical author managing to convey technical details to the general (non technical) reader. Read more
Published 5 months ago by DANIEL OROURKE
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book successfully brings updated science to the lay reader....
Front line science is offten controversial with different conflicting interpretations of phenomena. Books like this one do a very good job in organising the ideas and bringing them... Read more
Published 6 months ago by William Richard Gilbert
4.0 out of 5 stars Makes the point that the chaos inside a cell participates in its...
Makes the assertion that, while fully obeying the second law of thermodynamics, the cell harnesses the torrent of chaotic collisions of molecules inside a cell to aid in its... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Barry Collier
5.0 out of 5 stars incredible explanations of how the low level mechanisms work
You could read a 1000 1000 papers and not understand much about what this book covers because it would be too arcane. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Todd Hoff & Linda Coleman
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book!
Having a BS in physics myself, and remembering my statistical mechanics class 2 years ago, I can confirm this line of thinking. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Shawn E. Batten
5.0 out of 5 stars Only half through
I'm only half way through Life's Ratchet, but I will rate it now. I'm fairly well read in science written for laymen, so I can swiftly
read with understanding books of this... Read more
Published 8 months ago by David R. Criser
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