Stories of the Invisible: A Guided Tour of Molecules

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9780192802149: Stories of the Invisible: A Guided Tour of Molecules
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If atoms are letters, writes Philip Ball, then molecules are words. And through these words, scientists have uncovered many fascinating stories of the physical world. In Stories of the Invisible, Ball has compiled a cornucopia of tales spun by these intriguing, invisible words.
Spiced with quotations from Primo Levi, Flann O'Brien, and Thomas Pynchon, Stories of the Invisible takes us on a tour of a world few of us knew existed. The author describes, for instance, the remarkable molecular structure of spider's silk--a material that is pound for pound much stronger the steel--and shows how the Kevlar fibers in bulletproof vests were invented by imitating the alignment of molecules found in the spider's amazing thread. We also learn about the protein molecules that create movement, without which bacteria would be immobile, cells could not divide, there would be no reproduction and therefore no life. The book describes molecules shaped like miniature sculptures, containers, soccer balls, threads, rings, levers and geodesic domes, all made by sticking atoms together. Perhaps most important, Ball provides a fresh perspective on the future of molecular science, revealing how researchers are promising to reinvent chemistry as the central creative science of the 21st century. Indeed, molecular chemists will someday be able to manufacture a synthetic yet living cell and to create machines the size of bacteria, tools which they can then use to assemble new molecules to order.
Today we can invent molecules that can cure viral infections, store information, or help hold bridges together. In Stories of the Invisible, Philip Ball takes us inside an incredibly small world that has a major impact on our lives.

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Review:

"Molecules," Philip Ball writes, "are the smallest units of meaning in chemistry," the words, if you will, made up of atomic letters. In this lively essay, full of such useful metaphors, Ball shares his longstanding fascination with the unseen world once again, explaining some of the issues that guide modern biochemistry.

Consider a sheep, Ball offers, a congeries of "millions of little bits of sheepness." That animal is a blend of molecules, tens of thousands of varieties of them, many of them found in the grass, sky, and water that make up the sheep's environment, many of them shared with other animals and humans. It has been the task of modern chemistry to dissect matter, to tease out underlying structures and commonalities--and, Ball adds, to learn how to make of its constituent elements things that do things, "such as cure viral infections or store information or hold bridges together." How chemistry has done so, making body armor of spider silk and modeling computer networks on "molecular logic," drives Ball's discursive, entertaining, and eminently practical survey.

A trustworthy explainer of scientific matters to lay readers, Ball writes with clarity and grace--and the more difficult the concept, the better he gets. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:


Philip Ball is a science writer and consultant editor for Nature. He is the author of Self-Made Tapestry, Designing the Molecular World, and H2O: A Biography of Water. He lives in London.

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