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

Overview


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 ...

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

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Overview


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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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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. (Oct. 30)
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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.”

Nature
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.”

Kirkus Reviews
A biophysicist examines the relationship between chance and necessity at the boundary between life and inanimate objects. Hoffmann (Physics and Materials Science/Wayne State Univ.) founded his university's Biomedical Physics program in order to apply the latest advances in nanotechnology to probe the nature of life. Although his field of expertise is physics (he admits to having never formally studied biology), while still in graduate school, he became fascinated by the discrepancy between life at the level of atoms and molecules, where "chaos reigns," and at the larger scale of human existence, where, for the most part, "order prevails." With the development of the atomic force microscope, which can sense motion, scientists are now able to witness the action in living cells of molecular machines, "autonomously moving molecules performing specific tasks like tiny robots." The author applies Darwin's profound insight into the evolution of species to the question of how life itself evolved. He shows how Darwin implicitly resolved the split between reductionism and vitalism with the discovery of natural selection. Hoffmann distinguishes between macroscopic machines created to serve a specific purpose and the "autonomous [molecular] machines" found in life. He believes that the key to their functioning is the relationship between different kinds of energy at the nanoscale level, where different kinds of energy (chemical, electrostatic, thermal, etc.) operate on the same scale. He speculates about the "exciting possibility that the molecules in our body can spontaneously convert different types of energy into one another." By creating order from the chaotic storm of thermal energy through a process of natural selection, the mechanisms and enzymes necessary for a cell to live come into being. "Evolution is not random," Hoffmann writes. "It is a collaboration between a random process (mutation) and a nonrandom, necessary process (selection)...all of nature is a result of this balance." A fascinating mix of cutting-edge science with philosophy and theology.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465022533
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 10/30/2012
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 773,072
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet 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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Table of Contents

Introduction: What Is Life? 1

1 The Life Force 9

2 Chance and Necessity 45

3 The Entropy of a Late-Night Robber 67

4 On a Very Small Scale 89

5 Maxwell's Demon and Feynman's Ratchet 125

6 The Mystery of Life 143

7 Twist and Route 169

8 The Watch and the Ribosome 213

9 Making a Living 229

Epilogue: Life, the Universe, and Everything 243

Glossary 247

Sources 255

Suggested Reading 259

Acknowledgments 263

Index 265

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