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Molecules: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) Paperback – 27 Nov 2003
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Review from previous edition If the intimate workings of molecules seem invisible, through Philip Ball's lively pros we see them―coming to life, helping us live. A special delight of this excellent book is the tie that emerges between the wondrous molecules of nature and those chemists make in the laboratory. (Ronald Hoffmann, Chemistry Nobel Laureate 1981)
Almost no aspect of the exciting advances in molecular research studies at the beginning of the 21st Century has been left untouched and in so doing, Ball has presented an imaginative, personal overview, which is as instructive as it is enjoyable to read. (Harry Kroto, Chemistry Nobel Laureate 1996)
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 20/08/2001)
This is a very readable and non-technical survey . . . All of the ingredients of a good work of ficiton are here. It really is a good bedtime read for all. (THES 04/01/2002)
Stories of the Invisible is a lucid account of the way that chemists see the molecular world . . . the text is enriched with many historical and literature references, and is accessible to the reader untrained in chemistry (THES, 04/01/2002)
About the Author
Philip Ball is a science writer and a consultant editor for Nature, where he was formerly an editor for physical science for over 10 years. He writes about all areas of science for the international press, and has broadcast on TV and radio. His previous books include Designing the Molecular World, The Self-Made Tapestry, H20:A Biography of Water and The Ingredients: A Guided Tour of the Elements . He holds a degree in chemistry from Oxford University and a doctorate in physics from Bristol University. He lives in London, where his Homunculus Theatre Company occasionally performs on a shoestring budget.
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The book starts with the very basics - how atoms are joined together and why we can't 'see' them in the traditional sense, before quickly advancing to biochemistry and the complex molecules so vital to the body. As the author himself says, molecular biology is not difficult in the way that theoretical physics is difficult - the concepts are not unfamiliar, abstract or mathematically hard. The difficulty arises because there is so much going on all at once, and so many levels to the hierarchy.
So while Ball's writing is, for the most part, clear and full of personality, some of the processes he describes are unavoidably complicated and a lot to take in. As a non-specialist, I came away remembering the gist, if not all the detail. One of the reviews (Chemistry in Britain) described Ball's science as 'encyclopaedic'. That's definitely a word that springs to mind.
The choice of topics is good, and if, like me, you're new to the subject, you'll find it mind-boggling to learn just how finely-tuned our bodies are - all the checkpoints, safety mechanisms, back-up plans and careful record-keeping that occurs. Also the illustrations here are genuinely interesting and not just irrelevant ways to break up the text, as has been the case with certain other entries in this series. (Speaking of other entries, I can recommend the author's follow-up, The Elements: A Very Short Introduction.)
All in all, this is an impressive attempt by Ball to lead the non-specialist reader through a labyrinthine but vital area of science. You may not keep it all in your head, but you'll come away with a better sense of the kind of finely-tuned processes required to keep the big things functioning normally.
Starting with a brief rundown of what exactly molecules are, this introduction spans subjects as widely varied as the origins of life, the usage in the human body for messengers and regulation. Their role in materials and the way in which they behave. The role that molecules play in energy and it's storage and the ability to use them as motors and computers.
Simply put, this book is one of the most informative and interesting biochemistry/chemistry books I have read. It is well written, referenced and supported with diagrams. I can't recommend this 150-page A6 book enough, for initiates to chemistry, biochemistry, biology and even just the layman with an interest in the subject (me!).
Each chapter covers a function of natural molecules( mostly biological) before showing how scientists try to use those natural characteristics or processes either to try to make artificial molecules or to interact with nature, see modify the natural processes. The book is accessible to the lay reader even if they might find some explanations more difficult, while readers with a more solid scientific education could find those descriptions a bit superficial (well, this is a "very short introduction", isn't?).
Chapter 1 is introductory (what are molecules, what they are made of, their shape and sizes, etc)
Chapter 2: The molecules of life [the cell, DNA, RNA, enzymes, proteins (role, what they are made of, how they are produced from DNA, energy that fuels the process …]
Chapter 3 : materials from molecules [structural molecules in the human body (skin, bone, muscle, hair, nails) and the proteins and enzymes that make them, with a focus on collagen. Spider silk and its hierarchical molecular arrangement that scientists have copied for artificial polymers. The animal/human cell's skeleton with its tubular structure inspiring scientists for carbon pipes)
Chapter 4 : molecules and energy (ATP and ADP molecules that provide energy for biochemical processes, mitochondria, digestion and breathing in animals/humans, photosynthesis in plants. Use of energy-rich molecules for gun powder and dynamite),
Chapter 5: molecular motors (motor proteins that create motion, allow muscle power and cell division, for instance. Optical molecular tweezers created by scientists for molecular manipulation. How motor molecules have inspired research in nanotechnology.
Chapter 6: molecular communication (which molecule in the human body communicates with which, and what they communicate about. Hormones, neurons/axons/synapses and neurotransmitters)
Chapter 7 : molecular information (DNA— different aspects than in chapter 2—molecules that check for errors in DNA replication, or edit off useless elements before replication with scientists finding inspiration in natural editing tools for genetic modifications. Researches in molecular electronic to compensate for the limits of miniaturization of computer hardware).
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