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Stories of the Invisible: A Guided Tour of Molecules

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If atoms are letters, writes Philip Ball, then molecules are words. And through these words, scientists have uncovered many fascinating stories of the physical world. In Stories of the Invisible, Ball has compiled a cornucopia of tales spun by these intriguing, invisible words.

Spiced with quotations from Primo Levi, Flann O'Brien, and Thomas Pynchon, Stories of the Invisible takes us on a tour of a world few of us knew existed. The author describes, for instance, the remarkable...

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Overview

If atoms are letters, writes Philip Ball, then molecules are words. And through these words, scientists have uncovered many fascinating stories of the physical world. In Stories of the Invisible, Ball has compiled a cornucopia of tales spun by these intriguing, invisible words.

Spiced with quotations from Primo Levi, Flann O'Brien, and Thomas Pynchon, Stories of the Invisible takes us on a tour of a world few of us knew existed. The author describes, for instance, the remarkable molecular structure of spider's silk--a material that is pound for pound much stronger the steel--and shows how the Kevlar fibers in bulletproof vests were invented by imitating the alignment of molecules found in the spider's amazing thread. We also learn about the protein molecules that create movement, without which bacteria would be immobile, cells could not divide, there would be no reproduction and therefore no life. The book describes molecules shaped like miniature sculptures, containers, soccer balls, threads, rings, levers and geodesic domes, all made by sticking atoms together. Perhaps most important, Ball provides a fresh perspective on the future of molecular science, revealing how researchers are promising to reinvent chemistry as the central creative science of the 21st century. Indeed, molecular chemists will someday be able to manufacture a synthetic yet living cell and to create machines the size of bacteria, tools which they can then use to assemble new molecules to order.

Today we can invent molecules that can cure viral infections, store information, or help hold bridges together. In Stories of the Invisible, Philip Ball takes us inside an incredibly small world that has a major impact on our lives.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Leaving the periodic table of elements behind, Philip Ball takes us on a breezy, introductory tour of the molecules of life, from the ubiquitous proteins to the hardworking enzymes, the mysterious origins of RNA, and of course the grandeur of the king of molecules, DNA.
John Emsley
"In a society of chemical agnostics, it is a brave missionary who tries to reveal its mysteries, but that is what the author of Stories of the Invisible has attempted to do-and done remarkably well....."

"Ball is the right person to write this gospel, and it joins a canon of his successful popular works, the last one of which was the widely acclaimed H2O: A Biography of Water."

"At no point does Stories of the Invisible sacrifice sound science for sound bites-we are in the hands of a scholar and true believer."
Nature
Publishers Weekly
"Kevlar [a DuPont product] is one of the best candidates... for tethering a space platform.... But gram for gram, silk is stronger still," explains Philip Ball (H2O: A Biography of Water) in Stories of the Invisible: A Guided Tour of Molecules. Thus does this Nature magazine writer and editor render practical and navigable the abstractions of invisible science. "Our metabolic processes are primarily about making molecules. Cells cannot survive without constantly reinventing themselves: making new amino acids for proteins, new lipids for membranes." But Ball's biological explanation for life, thought and action is no dry, joyless drone: "That a conspiracy of molecules might have created King Lear... makes the world seem an enchanted place." Pop-science enthusiasts will eat it up. Illus. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A consultant editor for Nature, Ball uses the same refreshing style evident in his previous books (e.g., Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water) to bring the world of chemistry to the lay reader. This latest work tackles the world of molecules, explaining topics such as bioengineered materials, nanotechnology, intra- and intercellular communication, and molecular or DNA computing. Along the way, the reader receives short courses in genetics, biochemistry, and organic synthesis, getting just enough background to grasp the cutting-edge research that Ball introduces. Indeed, this book is a veritable tour of the late 20th-century Nobel prizes in chemistry and medicine, conveying the hope and excitement of modern-day chemistry, or, as Ball would have it, molecular science. Related books, none more than a decade old, are suggested for further reading. Recommended for public and college libraries. Wade M. Lee, Univ. of Toledo Libs., OH Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Science News
Ball's inspiring tour this small world illustrates how molecules assemble and fuction and how that action influences myriad aspects of the macro world.
Kirkus Reviews
British science writer Ball (Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water, 2000, etc.) offers a short introduction to chemistry, with a strong emphasis on that of our own bodies. Chemistry has an image problem, Ball recognizes, with words like "thalidomide" and "Bhopal" triggering unpleasant associations in the public consciousness. Thus, he chooses molecules as the focus here: that term (which refers to atoms in combination, the central concern of chemistry as a science) remains neutral for most readers. (He even suggests renaming chemistry "molecular science.") So it's easy to see why, in the first chapter, Ball impatiently races through the conventional historical survey of chemistry, from the Greeks through the Periodic Table to quantum mechanics-after all, that history emphasizes atoms. It's molecules that are responsible for living things, he reminds us, and so he devotes most of this tour to a fascinating inventory of the molecules employed by our body's cells and organs to do their work. DNA and RNA, the vehicles of genetic information, are the best known of this group, but every substance in the body has a role to play. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP to biochemists) is the common energy currency of animal cells, breaking up in a controlled way to allow organisms to burn oxygen. Proteins perform many tasks; there are some 60,000 different ones in the human body, each with a specialized function. Collagen is a rope-like structural protein that forms the basis of everything from bones to the cornea. More specialized is a molecule such as silk, the strength of which no synthetic can match. Even more fascinating are the proteins: myosin and actin, which allow our muscles to expandand contract; or G proteins, which transfer information from outside a cell to the organelles. Ball shows these in all their variety, spiced with interesting anecdotes and personal glimpses of chemists. A solid, well-written overview of molecular chemistry.
From the Publisher

"In a society of chemical agnostics, it is a brave missionary who tries to reveal its mysteries, but that is what the author of Stories of the Invisible has attempted to do--and done remarkably well...Ball is the right person to write this gospel...At no point does Stories of the Invisible sacrifice sound science for sound bites--we are in the hands of a scholar and true believer."--John Emsley, Nature

"Pop-science enthusiasts will eat it up."--Publishers Weekly

"Ball's inspiring tour of this small world illustrates how molecules assemble and function and how that action influences myriad aspects of the macro world."--Science News

"Ball uses the same refreshing style evident in his previous books...to bring the world of chemistry to the lay reader."--Library Journal

"An intriguing, quick-reading introduction to chemistry's state of play."--Booklist

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780192803177
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 7.70 (w) x 5.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Philip Ball is a science writer and consultant editor for Nature. He is the author of Self-Made Tapestry, Designing the Molecular World, and H2O: A Biography of Water. He lives in London.

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Table of Contents

List of figures
1 Engineers of the Invisible: Making Molecules 1
2 Vital Signs: The Molecules of Life 40
3 Take the Strain: Materials from Molecules 61
4 The Burning Issue: Molecules and Energy 85
5 Good Little Movers: Molecular Motors 114
6 Delivering the Message: Molecular Communication 138
7 The Chemical Computer: Molecular Information 162
Notes 187
Further reading 195
Index 197
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