Life's Ratchet

Life's Ratchet

How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos

By Peter M. Hoffmann

Basic Books (AZ), Hardcover, 9780465022533, 278pp.

Publication Date: October 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 stormspecialized 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 cityan 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 themas people believed for centurieslife'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.

Praise For Life's Ratchet

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.”