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Life's Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos 1st Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 58 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465022533
ISBN-10: 0465022537
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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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (October 30, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465022537
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465022533
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (58 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #178,653 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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