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A Guided Tour of Molecules

by Philip Ball

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-19-280214-3
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

British science writer Ball (Life’s Matrix: A Biography of Water, 2000, etc.) offers a short introduction to chemistry, with a strong emphasis on that of our own bodies.

Chemistry has an image problem, Ball recognizes, with words like “thalidomide” and “Bhopal” triggering unpleasant associations in the public consciousness. Thus, he chooses molecules as the focus here: that term (which refers to atoms in combination, the central concern of chemistry as a science) remains neutral for most readers. (He even suggests renaming chemistry “molecular science.”) So it’s easy to see why, in the first chapter, Ball impatiently races through the conventional historical survey of chemistry, from the Greeks through the Periodic Table to quantum mechanics—after all, that history emphasizes atoms. It’s molecules that are responsible for living things, he reminds us, and so he devotes most of this tour to a fascinating inventory of the molecules employed by our body’s cells and organs to do their work. DNA and RNA, the vehicles of genetic information, are the best known of this group, but every substance in the body has a role to play. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP to biochemists) is the common energy currency of animal cells, breaking up in a controlled way to allow organisms to burn oxygen. Proteins perform many tasks; there are some 60,000 different ones in the human body, each with a specialized function. Collagen is a rope-like structural protein that forms the basis of everything from bones to the cornea. More specialized is a molecule such as silk, the strength of which no synthetic can match. Even more fascinating are the proteins: myosin and actin, which allow our muscles to expand and contract; or G proteins, which transfer information from outside a cell to the organelles. Ball shows these in all their variety, spiced with interesting anecdotes and personal glimpses of chemists.

A solid, well-written overview of molecular chemistry.