Synopses & Reviews
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 Lifes 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 stormspecialized 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 cityan 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 themas people believed for centurieslifes ratchets harness instead the second law of thermodynamics and the disorder of the molecular storm.
Grounded in Hoffmanns own cutting-edge research, Lifes Ratchet reveals the incredible findings of modern nanotechnology to tell the story of how the noisy world of atoms gives rise to life itself.
"By blending the laws of physics with the principles of biology, Hoffmann, a professor of physics and material science at Wayne State, attempts to explain how molecules give rise to living organisms. Molecules inside our cells, he says, are the smallest particles of life. These molecules act like robots: they build themselves, perform tasks, and are recycled to perform new tasks. These 'molecular machines' use the energy of chaos surrounding them in which atoms are buffeted by the random motion of the 'molecular storm' to create order and give rise to life. Hoffmann provides a rather dry and lengthy historical and philosophical perspective on the definition of life, concluding that it is 'the result of noise and chaos, filtered through the structures of highly sophisticated molecular machines that have evolved over billions of years.' The biological mechanisms he describes are from the cutting edge of the discipline, but may be presented in more detail than is necessary for the average reader. One confusion is that the 'molecular machines' in the title all refer to naturally occurring combinations of molecules rather than any of those currently being created in the laboratories of nanotechnologists. 40 b&w illus. Agent: Russell Galen at Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
[A] fascinating glimpse into recent research on molecular machines, research that lies at the intersection of biology, chemistry, and physics.... Lifes 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.”
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 Lifes Ratchet to get to the beating heart of the matter. After a lively, lucid grand tour of the controversys 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 textbookand thats a compliment.”
City Book Review
Lifes 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 thoughtfulnessthe 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.”
Lifes 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 books important message is that there is a revolution brewing. This revolution will not tell us what matter is made of. Instead, as described in Lifes Ratchet, it will tell us how matter and energy combine to make me and you.”
In Lifes Ratchet, biophysicist Peter Hoffmann reveals that the secret to life isnt 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. Lifes 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 Darwins Devices
Lifes Ratchet is one of those rare books that pay off one of sciences central promises: reductionism can explain higher-order phenomenon. While Hoffmann is careful to say that nanoscience hasnt 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 Lifes Ratchet provides. Hoffmanns 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 universitys Biomedical Physics program. Born and raised in Germany, Hoffmann studied Mathematics and Physics at the Technical University of Clausthal, Germany. In 1992, he came to the U.S., where he studied physics at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He completed an M.S. in Physics in the area of nanoscience, and received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. Hoffman is the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Science Foundation Early Career Award, as well as the Richard Barber Faculty and Staff Excellence Award, the College of Science and Presidential Teaching Awards, and the Career Development Chair Award from Wayne State University. He lives in Saint Clair Shores, Michigan.