Special thanks to Peter Hoffmann for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos
Peter M. Hoffmann is a professor of physics and materials science at Wayne State University in Michigan and the founder and director of the university’s Biomedical Physics program. He lives in Saint Clair Shores, Michigan. – From Life’s Ratchet Homepage
#1 – What was the impetus for writing Life’s Ratchet?
That’s a long story. I have been doing research in biophysics for only the last 7-8 years (out of a 22 year research career). When I got into this area, I became very fascinated with molecular machines and how understanding them connects physics to biology. I thought that this would be an important and interesting area for the public to know about, but discovered that there was no good popular science book on the topic. I always wanted to write a popular science book, and so I decided to write the book that I couldn’t find in the bookstore.
#2 – What is an atomic force microscope and how did it inform your research in this book?
An atomic force microscope (AFM) is an instrument that can measure and image tiny forces on surfaces with better than nanometer precision. I do most of my research using AFMs, including performing measurements of forces between single biological molecules. AFMs have also been used by others to directly image the motions of molecular machines.
#3 – The science you are talking about is cutting-edge stuff. How did you set about conveying this information to the general public? What was your philosophy in communicating the science?
My approach was to try to achieve three things: First, place the science into the larger context of our centuries-old quest to understand life. Secondly, explain all the necessary science, i.e. not expect the reader to be an expert in thermodynamics or biophysics, but to present the necessary information in a fun way in the book. Finally, to not stop short in explaining some of the more difficult aspects of the science. The idea was to have something for everybody: The philosophical minded seeker for “the meaning of life”, the interested science novice and the seasoned popular science reader.
#4 – How has your book been received? By your fellow physicists, biologists and the public?
Very well. It was listed as one of the top five books by Physics Today (the main publication of the American Physical Society), as a top ten physics books by the British Institute of Physics, and a top 12 book by the Royal Society (longlisted for the Winton prize). The book was favorably reviewed in Nature, Physics Today, an NBC news blog, The Scientist and other publications. I have presented on the book at last year’s World Science Festival in New York City, and have done radio interviews on Michio Kaku’s show and an NPR affiliate. So, all in all, I was extremely pleased with the reception of my first book.
#5 – Are working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?
I am working on a number of ideas and hope to have my next book out within 18-24 months from now. I am keeping the topic secret for now. It will not be a sequel, but a different topic, although there will be connections to physics, biology sand nanoscience.
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