Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos by Peter M. Hoffmann

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.

Peter M. Hoffmann (1968-) was born in Germany and grew up in a small village in Saarland. After completing his undergraduate studies in Physics and Mathematics in Germany, he moved to the US for graduate studies in 1992, completing an MS in Physics at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, and a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. He then spent two years at University at Oxford, UK, as a research fellow. In 2001, he joined Wayne State University, Detroit, MI as an Assistant Professor of Physics. In 2008, he co-founded the undergraduate biomedical physics program at Wayne State and served as its director from 2008-2012. He has since been promoted to a full professorship and was appointed Associate Dean for academic programs in 2012. He is an active researcher in soft matter physics, nanoscience and biophysics. One of his passions is promoting science through outreach and writing. “Life’s Ratchet” (2012) is his first popular science book.

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