Thursday, October 10, 2013

Books: "Molecules" - The Science Behind Breaking Bad

(Drivebycuriosity) - Finally, my favorite TV series - maybe everybody´s - had come to an end: "Breaking Bad". The rise & fall of a chemistry teacher, who uses his scientific knowledge for his rogue career, rekindled my interest in chemistry. Therefore I reread  "Molecules. A Very Short Introduction " by Philip Ball (amazon). The short book (around 150 pages), which is very easy to read, presents the science behind "Breaking Bad" and describes what chemists are able to do today and what we could expect in the near future. This post gives just an outline of the densly written publication.

According to Richard Feynman, one of the leading thinker in quantum physics, the chemist does "a mysterious thing when he wants to make a molecule. He sees that he has got that ring, so he mixed this and that., and he shakes it, and he fiddles around. And, at the end of a difficult process, he usually does succeed in synthesizing what he wants".

Ball defines molecules as "collectives of atoms, firmly welded together into assemblies that may contain anything up to many millions of them". For centuries chemists have been learning to brake those groups apart,  regroup them and to rebuild them, giving them a new shape. "And they are getting rapidly better at the craft of molecule building", claims Ball.

Molecules are in almost everything and concern with most parts of our life. The tiny book covers an impressive variety of topics in just 7 chapters with an average length of 20 pages. Here some examples:

Chapter 1 opens our eyes for molecular science, the basics of chemistry. Ball describes the difficulties to "see" molecules, because they are smaller than the wavelength of light. Helpful are the laws of quantum mechanics (concerning the behavior of electrons and other particles of atoms) that "enable us to predict how atoms will form bonds (with other atoms) and where they will sit in relation to one another". For chemists it is important to know that " atoms of each element have a tendency to form a fixed number of bonds….Carbon atoms prefer to form four bonds, hydrogen atoms just one. Oxygen atoms form two".

Chapter  2 introduces the reader into organic chemistry. Ball quotes the British biologist J.B.S. Haldane who said: "Life is a pattern of chemical processes". The author writes about different kinds of proteins, for instance enzymes, which are molecules that catalyze processes of chemical change. Ball further elaborates about the various functions of molecules  in our body.

Chapter 3 throws a light onto the interaction of molecular science with material engineering. The author describes how chemists construct new materials. "Chemists now know many tricks for engineering particular properties into their materials - making them hard or soft, say, or capable of forming tong fibers". Chemists try to copy nature, for instance spiders who produce very stable fibers (silk) for their web.

Ball claims that one day molecular engineering will make it possible to grow a new kidney. He also confronts the reader with new developments, like carbon nanotubes. These are molecules based on carbon atoms which could lead to extremely stable materials.

Chapter 4  deals with the importance of molecules for energy generation in cells and therefore for our life. Balls describes for instance the photosynthesis of plants and the complex processes how our body burns sugar.

Chapter 5 shows how muscles work with the help of proteins that are acting as molecular machines. Ball also touches the issue of nanotechnology and attempts to construct motors on a molecular scale.

Chapter 6 dives into the mysteries of molecular communication. A diverse array of molecules serves as messengers, that are called neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. To this family belong hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and mescaline that overexcite the brain by enhancing the stimulatory effects of serotonin. Part of these psycho stimulants is Walter`s crystal meth (methamphetamine), but I didn`t find it mentioned in Ball`s book.

In the final Chapter (7) Ball toys with the idea of molecular computers and presents the theoretical concept that computing can be conducted using DNA.

"Molecules" benefits a lot from historical examples and frequent quotes of literature.

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