Good books on science
The Scientist has some good capsule reviews of recent science books—for example, this one:
Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos
By Peter M. Hoffmann
Basic Books, November 2012
What distinguishes life from its nonliving ingredients? How could life arise from the lifeless? These questions have vexed philosophers and scientists for more than 2,500 years. Bio-besotted physicist Peter Hoffmann wrote Life’s Ratchet to get to the beating heart of the matter. After a lively, lucid grand tour of the controversy’s history—featuring prescient thinkers you’ve probably never heard of (Julien Offray de La Mettrie? D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson?)—Hoffman arrives at modern molecular biology and the technological breakthroughs, such as atomic force microscopy, that enable us to see the very atoms of a cell.
The secret of life, he says, is not some “vital force,” but the unique operations of the second law of thermodynamics at the nanoscale, where molecular machines from kinesins to DNA synthase, fueled by ATP, can harness the energy of the “molecular storm”—the random bombardment of water molecules at jet-plane speeds—to move and work. Hoffman convincingly demonstrates how such “motors” could have evolved from simpler self-assembling structures, but admits that how all these cellular components came to regulate one another so precisely is still a mystery. A masterwork of making the complex comprehensible, this book would make a smashing freshman biology textbook—and that’s a compliment.