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Publisher's Summary

The cells in our bodies consist of molecules, made up of the same carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms found in air and rocks. But molecules, such as water and sugar, are not alive. So how do our cells - assemblies of otherwise "dead" molecules - come to life, and together constitute a living being?

In Life’s Ratchet, physicist Peter M. Hoffmann locates the answer to this age-old question at the nanoscale. The complex molecules of our cells can rightfully be called "molecular machines", or "nanobots"; these machines, unlike any other, work autonomously to create order out of chaos. Tiny electrical motors turn electrical voltage into motion, tiny 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 worker bees working together to create something greater than themselves.

Life, Hoffman argues, emerges from the random motions of atoms filtered through the sophisticated structures of our evolved machinery. We are essentially giant assemblies of interacting nanoscale machines; machines more amazing than can be found in any science fiction novel. Incredibly, the molecular machines in our cells function without a mysterious "life force", nor do they violate any natural laws. Scientists can now prove that life is not supernatural, and that it can be fully understood in the context of science.

Part history, part cutting-edge science, part philosophy, Life’s Ratchet takes us from ancient Greece to the laboratories of modern nanotechnology to tell the story of our quest for the machinery of life.

©2012 Peter M. Hoffman (P)2014 Audible, Inc.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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For biologists to learn single molecule biophysics

I loved this book. I wish I could give it more than 5 stars. I was trained as a molecular biologist, and I am very well versed in the theory of how the processes of life work. DNA to RNA to protein, all about cell biology, which proteins are important for what, etc. However, molecular biophysics, quantitative and single molecule approaches have always interested me, but been to far out of my comfort zone for me to engage to closely with. This book did an excellent job at helping me bridge that gap in my knowledge, and I now feel comfortable understanding how a protein can use the energy of an ATP molecule to perform an energetically unfavorable reaction, for instance. The history of the scientific understanding of vital forces and what animates life was also illuminating.

However, I suspect that this book might not appeal to very many people. The history section, the nanoscale physics section, and the section on how specific motor proteins work were all interesting to me, but I can't imagine very many people have both a sufficient biological background to understand the later chapters in the book, and an insufficient knowledge of physics to appreciate the earlier chapters, lucky for me, I fit the bill. I also have an strong interest in the history of science, so the history of vital forces was also interesting.

This book also had a great section on Maxwell's Demon, or using information to break the second law of thermodynamics, which I had always wanted a more satisfying answer to.

My two main criticisms are:
1 - The jumps between the different sections - molecular noise, history of vital forces, molecular motors - seemed almost like the author has learned a lot about each subject and wanted to include it all in his book. It seemed a little disjointed; I liked it but I suspect others might find it a bit scattered.

2 - The narrator is pretty good, but mispronounces a TON of words. At first I thought maybe the Brits just pronounce many many words differently than in the US, but many words were definitely wrong, and some seemed to change over the course of the book. I wish the narrator had taken a break when he didn't know a word to look it up, because it takes you out of the book. The most egregious example was calling the 5' and 3' ends of DNA the 5 inch and 3 inch ends, instead of 5 prime and 3 prime ends. I don't know how he could have made this mistake, because even if he was completely clueless, ' means foot, not inch.

This book is about the nanoscale, but he mispronounced nanometer. He pronounced Feynman as Faneman. These are but of few of the many many mistakes. But his narration was pretty good.

35 of 36 people found this review helpful

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How order arises from molecular chaos

This is an excellent explanation of how the molecular machines of life (the DNA replicators, the ribosomes, the membrane pumps, etc) arose from the random molecular storm. Mr. Hoffman does a great job in explaining the role of chance and physics in this process. I also enjoyed his recount of the history of man's struggle with uncovering these discoveries.

I think those readers without any science background might find the later chapters a challenge.

8 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Christine
  • Austin, TX, United States
  • 06-14-14

Very fine explanation of nanoscale biophysics

The book is quite good as an overview nanoscale biophysics. The author is a practitioner of this branch of study. He makes a small gaff in the last part of the text asserting that there is no basis for the particular set of codons that appears in almost all organisms; however, there are in fact several very nice papers on this subject and it is no longer -- since the 80's -- generally thought that the code is a frozen accident as Crick suggested in the early 60's. The author does a fine job of explaining the relationship of the laws of thermodynamics to how cellular processes work.

The narrator was OK until he tried to pronounce nanometer in a manner analogous to manometer. The final straw was when he pronounced the 5' and 3' ends of DNA as the 5-inch and 3-inch ends. The correct way is to say 5-prime and 3-prime.

11 of 12 people found this review helpful

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Entertaining and Dense

Great book if you like biology, but at times I might be a bit tough to follow if you are not fimlilar with cell biology (first year college level). For the most part bio knowledge isn't needed but a strong interest in science in general is required. This is not an introductory book for somebody new to biology.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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a great book

The first chapters are a review of western thinking about science and life from ancient Greece forward, which did not excite me. Eventually the book delves into current understanding of the components of life at the level of molecular machines and how they survive and make use of the incredibly powerful frenzied chaos of Brownian motion. A well written explanation of the amazing complexity of a living cell. The conclusion turns back to philosophical ideas about the life,universe,and everything, which I enjoyed as it was based on a much deeper understanding of what is happening than the ancients, or anyone until very recently could have any clue.

The reader's pronouncements are distracting, not sure if he speaks a dialect correctly or was unfamiliar with the vocabulary, but once you get used to that, the reading is very good.

a very great book!

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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A fine book for a very hard-core science reader

Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

I wish I had skipped the first few chapters/hours as they were a brutal slog through history. It finally picked up (I was on a six hour car trip with few options so I stuck with it) and got more interesting. I have a strong science background so the material wasn't over my head, it was just unbelievably dry for the first 3-4 hours of the book.

Would you be willing to try another book from Peter M. Hoffman? Why or why not?

Not too likely. One of his themes is the triumph of reductionism over new age nonsense. Although in the conclusion he backtracks and says top down and bottom up are both valuable most of the books is very closed minded about reductionism is the only way.

Did Life’s Ratchet inspire you to do anything?

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1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Very accessible book on molecular biology

I found this book to contain a fascinating and highly understandable explanation of how chance, chaos, and necessity work in concert to form life. I haven't taken a biology course since the 1960s, so that gives you an idea of how little I knew about the topic before. The author carefully walks the reader through his arguments using excellent but simple analogies. It helps to have some understanding of scientific terms like entropy, however. I found myself hopping on YouTobe to look at animations of kinesins, myosins, and other molecular machines as the narrator described their processes. The visual aids really helped me understand his descriptions. Beware, though, that many of the animations are hosted by Creationists, who use the beauty and complexity of molecular machines to argue for intelligent design, The author dismantles those arguments near the end of the book, Glad I bought this. I will definitely read it again.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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3 hours in and very little science

It's not a bad book. There is a lot of good information about the history of science related to biology. But, so far, I have heard more sneering commentary about religious beliefs than I wanted to and virtually nothing about the "molecular machines" and how they work. As someone with an interest in molecular and cellular biology, chaos and emergence, this is extremely disappointing.

7 of 10 people found this review helpful

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GreatListen! Got paper to Dig In!

May & deserves a few listens.
Deep, clear and precise details of molecular motors etc
Generated at least 10 Follow-up Issues to dig more deeply into.

Hope the author wrote more?

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Chance and necessity

An interesting introduction into the mantle world of biophysics. The author comes from a physics background and became interested in it's small-scale applications to biology. The author sees both subjects as complementarity and one informing the other. This cooperative approach is also manifest in how the author views reductionism and holism (emergent properties)as two sides of the same coin.The discussion of how enzymes work is brilliant and very helpful in understanding how ATP forms the energy currency for all of life. The author also does a good job of explaining how all of this fits well with the theory of evolution i.e. the changeovertime from a single cell that formed billions of years ago.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Marcelo
  • 12-07-15

Wonderfully informing

A book that inspires me to probe more into micro and molecular biology. Maybe some enjoyed it, but I found the history and early philosophy of life in the first chapter or 2 a little tedious. Still marvelous overall

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Mr James A McGill
  • 11-03-16

brilliant title

absolutely loved this couldn't stop listening to it every chance I had listen to it

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  • StefanCM
  • 04-28-16

Interruptions in chapter 5

Thought it was my poor connection, but it wasn't. This shouldn't happen to be honest.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 02-23-15

Marvellous breadth of thought.

Most enjoyable. Like Darwin and Dawkins, this book illuminates areas I hitherto knew almost nothing about. I am now completely fascinated by molecular biology.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful