Life’s Ratchet

  • by Peter M. Hoffman
  • Narrated by Paul Hodgson
  • 9 hrs and 52 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

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.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

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.
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- A Synthetic Biologist

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.
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- Richard S. Zipper

Book Details

  • Release Date: 02-12-2014
  • Publisher: Audible Studios