Life's Ratchet
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How do our cells—assemblies of otherwise “dead” molecules—come to life and together make up a living being? In Life’s Ratchet, physicist Peter M. Hoffmann locates the answer to this age-old question at the nanoscale.

Beneath the calm, ordered exterior of a living organism lies microscopic chaos, or what Hoffmann calls the molecular storm—molecules in liquid continuously crash into each other as part of their thermal motion. Yet powered by energy, microscopic molecular machines—the ratchets of the title—work autonomously to create order out of the 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 workers striving together to create something greater than themselves.

Life, Hoffmann argues, emerges from the random motions of atoms filtered through these sophisticated structures of our evolved machinery. We are essentially 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 atomic cloud gives rise to life itself.


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