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Life's Ratchet [Hardcover]

Peter M. Hoffmann
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

13 Nov 2012
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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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (13 Nov 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465022537
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465022533
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16.3 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 399,473 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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."

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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not what it is on the cover 7 Sep 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
One wades through pages and pages of anecdote and history (all well told and interesting) before one gets to anything to do with the book's title. Not bad, just frustrating, especially if you are well acquainted with conventional chemistry and biology.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars much better than expected and top of its class 18 Mar 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have read many books of this type; explaining life's basic elements. I have read the chemistry of life etc. This book gets into the concepts more than going through the details of the operations. There is a very thorough and deep summary of the history behind many of the fundamental ideas about life. The discussion brings up all sides of the arguments. In short it is very very good.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb 24 Feb 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
An excellent book, explains difficult concepts in a manner understandable to the general public. Does not link concepts to Stationary Action, although connections are implicit throughout the book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.6 out of 5 stars  28 reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The nanoscale - where biology meets physics meets chemistry 18 Mar 2013
By Kaleberg - Published on
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. We can go to Youtube and watch a myosin molecule walk its track, buffeted by the invisible storm. It's an amazing story, and this book does a wonderful job of bringing this story to anyone with even a basic scientific background. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. We truly live in amazing times.
32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Profound Idea Illustrated With Too Much Detail 20 Jan 2013
By Book Fanatic - Published on
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.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How the world moved from "inanimate" objects to "live" organisms 4 July 2013
By Herbert L Calhoun - Published on
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.

Thus, what emerges from this book is a scientifically testable set of conjectures about the creation of life, namely that: life has emerged from the ability to self-order random chaos in water by filtering the motion of atoms through sophisticated structures of our evolving cellular machinery.

According to Professor Hoffman, the cell is like a complex city of molecular machines and factories working together to produce order, and then inexorably (and purposefully?), to produce something bigger than themselves. Using Darwin's insights about how natural selection helped resolve the split between reductionism and vitalism, Hoffman shows us how order can be created from a chaotic storm of thermal energy, and then with the process of natural selection, can produce all of the ingredients necessary to sustain cellular life.

And while it is true that for the moment some of this is what one might at best call "strategic speculation," especially the teleological aspects about the purposeful nature of the cell's activity, it is still the kind of "experimentally guided speculation" that leaves the door wide open for later scientific verification, testing and validation.

I love this book because for the first it gives us a framework for generating testable scientific hypotheses that may be able to stand as viable alternatives to the Creationists' Intelligent Design and other Biblical Genesis creation myths: This chain of logic that links atomic activity, the second law of thermodynamics, thermal, electrical and chemical energy, and Darwin's theory of evolution, contains all of the seeds of the always suspected root cause ingredients of life, and does so in the correct logical and epistemological proportions. By my way of thinking, this framework alone is a giant step in the direction of a more solid and scientifically correct understanding of how life began. Ten Stars
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A nano-mechanical view of life by a physicist 1 Jun 2013
By T. Stephens - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Just finished reading "Life's Rachet" by Peter M. Hoffman. He is a physicist with expertise in nanotechnology. This is a good book on basic life machinery and how it works although missing a lot of important processes. He gives the most complete argument against the creationist "watchmaker" argument I have seen. He also explains why life does not violate the second law of thermodynamics which is another argument by believers that there must be a god. He also makes great arguments against the gene centric "selfish gene" hypothesis of Dawkins and Dennet. A pretty good read but he leaves out much biochemistry and molecular biology as you might expect for a physicist. Ultimately, he does not even approach the question of how the life process gets started other than echoing the "RNA" world argument which always glosses over the question of where the RNA came from in the first place since making RNA in the pre-biologic world is very unlikely. A good read and recommended.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic read! You won't want to put it down. 19 Feb 2013
By Richard Holland - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A truly wonderful read! Of the fundamental questions asked by humans (what is life?) is certainly one of most intriguing and perplexing of questions. This book does a remarkable job at answering one of humanities ultimate questions. The author takes the reader along a journey from early philosophers and their take on the question as to what is life, all the way to the scientists of modernity. This is the first book that I have read that not only explains life as a process, but also guides the reader through the inner workings of life’s processes, showing how Nano machines, are both constructed and driven by the randomness of the motion of atoms, while being directed by natural selection. Professor Hoffmann explains the technical details of life’s inner workings, as well as the tools and techniques used to discover these remarkable systems, in a thorough, yet remarkably accessible manner. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to gain a better understanding of the process we call life. Life’s Ratchet is definitely a top shelf book.
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