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Stories of the Invisible: A Guided Tour of Molecules [Paperback]

Philip Ball
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

12 Sep 2002
What are things made of? 'Everything is composed of small mollycules of itself, and they are flying around in concentric circles and arcs and segments,' explains Sergeant Fottrell in Flann O'Brien's The Dalkey Archive. Philip Ball shows that the world of the molecule is indeed a dynamic place. Using the chemistry of life as a springboard, he provides a new perspective on modern chemical science as a whole. Living cells are full of molecules in motion, communication, cooperation, and competition. Molecular scientists are now starting to capture the same dynamism in synthetic molecular systems, promising to reinvent chemistry as the central creative science of the new century.

Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford Paperbacks (12 Sep 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192803174
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192803177
  • Product Dimensions: 20.1 x 12.8 x 1.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 697,115 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. He worked at Nature for over 20 years, first as an editor for physical sciences (for which his brief extended from biochemistry to quantum physics and materials science) and then as a Consultant Editor. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology.

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Amazon Review

"Molecules", Philip Ball writes in Stories of the Invisible, "are the smallest units of meaning in chemistry", the words, if you will, made up of atomic letters. In this lively essay, full of such useful metaphors, Ball shares his longstanding fascination with the unseen world once again, explaining some of the issues that guide modern biochemistry.

Consider a sheep, Ball offers, a congeries of "millions of little bits of sheepness". That animal is a blend of molecules, tens of thousands of varieties of them, many of them found in the grass, sky and water that make up the sheep's environment, many of them shared with other animals and humans. It has been the task of modern chemistry to dissect matter, to tease out underlying structures and commonalities--and, Ball adds, to learn how to make of its constituent elements things that do things, "such as cure viral infections or store information or hold bridges together". How chemistry has done so, making body armour of spider silk and modelling computer networks on "molecular logic", drives Ball's discursive, entertaining, and eminently practical survey.

A trustworthy explainer of scientific matters to lay readers, Ball writes with clarity and grace--and the more difficult the concept, it seems, the better. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"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, NatureScience 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."--Science News"Ball uses the same refreshing style evident in his previous bring the world of chemistry to the lay reader."--Library Journal"An intriguing, quick-reading introduction to chemistry's state of play."--Booklist"Pop-science enthusiasts will eat it up."--Publishers Weekly

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The sergeant beckoned the waitress, ordered a barley wine for himself and a small bottle of 'that' for his friend. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars this helped me in my studies of science. 20 Aug 2014
this helped me in my studies of science. Found it a bit too deep in places for my limited knowledge but still usefull
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.6 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Trying to make the invisible, visible 14 Jan 2002
By Dennis Littrell - Published on
Almost all of this is about biochemistry where the molecules are large, complex and of overriding importance and interest to human beings. In particular Philip Ball, who is a science journalist and formerly an editor of Nature, one of the most prestigious science journals in the world, wants to show "the molecular processes that govern our own bodies are not so different from those that chemists--I would prefer to say molecular scientists--are seeking to create." His further intent in this modest little book is to counter the "negative connotations of <chemical> and <synthetic>" in the public mind and to help us "appreciate what chemistry has to offer." Ball observes that "molecules" do not yet have negative connotations, and he wants to keep it that way. (pp. vi-vii)
Ball demonstrates just how really complex the molecular world is, and how the technology is becoming further removed from our everyday world, while the effect on our world grows enormously. The text does not consist of "stories" as such, but rather a broad survey of molecular science, including what's happening in exciting new fields such as molecular electronics, and how new uses for molecular knowledge is transforming older fields such as paleontology, computer science, information theory, forensics, etc. Ball provides some material on cellular construction and metabolism, augmented with drawings from his own hand. He gives us a feel for the invisible, tactile reality of molecular interactions, in which surface structure is paramount. He ends the book with a brief look at the prospects for molecular and DNA computers.
There is unfortunately a kind of veil-like quality thrown between the molecular world and the reader's perception of that world by the very fact of its invisibility that I don't think Ball's text overcomes. It is curious, but it is not a question of readability so much as a question of how to present these very complex structures and ideas in a way that the reader can absorb in some concrete fashion. Ball begins with some dialogue from a fiction set in a Dublin pub about "mollycules"; however this does not help. Indeed I could not see the point of the exchange. At any rate Ball abandons it after the first few pages.
The exposition following that, about what molecules are and how they differ technically from atoms, was one of the strengths of the book. However much of the rest of the book is like a first year survey course of various topics in molecular science, a very diverse subject, but without any insistence on the mastery of fundamentals. This is good, I suppose, and Ball's intent, but since I know little about chemistry, I was left not really appreciating a lot of the text. I express this as more a failing on my part than a criticism of Ball's efforts, and to warn the reader that some serious interactive and imaginative work will be required! Ball does indeed go to great lengths to make the visible real, not only with his drawings, but with "photos" from the "scanning tunnelling microscope" while using other "representations" to make the technically invisible, "visible."
One thing that I felt very strongly in reading this book was the sense of frustration that molecular engineers and others in the world of nano technology must feel when dealing with objects so very, very small. I had the sense that somebody was crying out, "My world for a pair of molecular tweezers!" I suspect when they get those tweezers, our world is going to change enormously.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stories of the Invisible: A Guided Tour of the Molecules 21 Oct 2002
By Joe Zika - Published on
Stories of the Invisible: A Guided Tour of Molecules written by Philip Ball is about chemistry, but to be more specific, a blend of biochemistry, bioelectricity, molecular biology, molecular chemistry.
This book trys, as the author stated, to give chemistry a better overall picture, but the boundries are becouming blurred, even more so when you explain molecular organic chemistry. Now, reading this book, doesn't require a degree in any of these disciplines, but a good grasp of scientific principles helps.
The narrative is easily read and is not difficult to read as the author relates to the reader what is happening in industry today. As more and more of the interworkings are understood in molecular chemistry, mankind should be reaping the benefits, making our lives easiler, and making better products. What I fould to be the most intriguing is a molecular chemical computer more on the order of the human brain.
Life in the next one hundred years will be very different than life was in the last one hundred years and mankind harnessing the molecules of life will be on the forefront. Nanothechnology is another field addressed in the book. As the author makes a good point, if we can find the tools to manipulate this technology, we pretty much can control everything.
All of the subjects within this book are invisible, but with tunneling microscopy, electron microscope, and other tool of the trade, making what was once unseen, now visible. Along with the authors hand drawn art illustrates the point quite well at times. I found the book readable with the caveat... you must have some science orientation.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very Good for Someone who Reads One Science Book a Year 6 Nov 2001
By Herbert Gintis - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Phillip Ball writes well, capably cuts through the complex stuff to get to the heart of the matter, and tells good stories. If you read one science book a year, or you want to give a gift to your Aunt Minnie who always wanted to find out why chemicals aren't all bad, this is the book for you.
I downrated this book because it doesn't really do what it says it is going to do. It purports to be about chemistry, and it has blurbs written by four Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry. The book claims it wants to restore chemistry to its rightful position among the natural sciences, having been relegated to a lowly position by New Age environmentalist non-think. However, the book spends most of its time on biochemistry, cell biology, and other biological topics! Phillip Ball does not really address his challenge, because so little of the book is about the chemistry of chemists (molecular engineers?) as opposed to biologists.
I wish Ball would write another book--this one really about chemistry. There's a great story to tell.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Glad I bought it 24 Oct 2012
By Pen Name - Published on
This book is worth the read. It furthered my understanding as well as raised new questions, exactly what I'm looking for in a book, especially when in comes to the sciences.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 3.5 Stars for Gallimaufry Introduction on Biochemistry 14 Aug 2008
By Bonam Pak - Published on
I read the 2002 paperback of the 2001 book. It contains just 185 regular text pages, including 40 illustrations. It touches upon subjects such as biosynergetic engineering, supramolecular chemistry, molecular computing or, more down to earth, such topics as the workings of hormones, drugs and painkillers. In other words it's more about biochemistry than anything else. It may function as a conspectus of the subject of molecules. Yet, I find the concept or message of the book difficult to detect. At times, the choice of topics seemed logical, at other times the entire book felt arbitrary. Don't get me wrong, I don't regret having read the book. However, it gave me little more than an idea of topics I may want to read about elsewhere in-depth.
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