Life's ratchet How molecular machines extract order from chaos

Peter M. Hoffmann

Book - 2012

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New York : Basic Books c2012.
Physical Description
vii, 278 p. : ill. ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Main Author
Peter M. Hoffmann (-)
  • What is life?
  • The life force
  • Chance and necessity
  • The entropy of a late-night robber
  • On a very small scale
  • Maxwell's demon and Feynman's ratchet
  • The mystery of life
  • Twist and route
  • The watch and the ribosome
  • Making a living
  • Life, the universe, and everything.
Review by Choice Review

For centuries, philosophers of science have wondered how living organisms arise from the natural world. In particular, the question of the existence of a "life force," and what it might be if it existed, has been a perennial puzzle. The author's premise is that the "life force" does exist in a way, and it is nothing more than chaos, as understood by mathematicians and physicists. As science advances further into the age of molecular biology and nanobiology, the role of chaos in biological systems seems to become ever clearer. Hoffman (Wayne State Univ.) proposes that life can be understood by studying the "molecular machines" of the book's title, and the way they create order out of the chaos of the universe, thereby giving life a purely mechanistic basis. He presents a wide-ranging discussion to support his ideas, with topics as varied as probability theory, thermodynamics and entropy, enzymology, molecular motors, and molecular genetics. Written for the educated general reader, this book is a thought-provoking and highly accessible exposition of current thought concerning the ways in which molecular machines literally "create" life, and how scientists might be able to manipulate these machines to do the same. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through researchers/faculty; informed general audiences. R. K. Harris William Carey University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Kirkus Book Review

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.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.