03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Book Review: Giant Molecules: From Nylon to Nanotubes

When the history of chemistry is written a thousand years from now, the 20th century will no doubt be marked as the century of giant molecules (macromolecules) in industry, the century in which the properties of giant molecules were first seriously studied and applied to technology and commerce. Most certainly, the importance of giant molecules in industry will be amplified in the present 21st century. In plain English, take giant molecules out of our lives and our present civilization would quickly collapse.

But there's another 20th century marker. Above all, in the 20th century giant molecules became the central feature of the application of chemistry to biological science. What happened in the 20th century was that the puzzle of life, which had passed from philosophers to theologians to zoologists, finally passed to chemists. Life, as we now understand it, is a phenomenon in the chemistry of giant molecules. It's jarring, of course: so many millions of words in old books have become irrelevant.

A giant molecule is not merely an arithmetic agglomeration of small molecules stuck together. Put a million monomers together to form a polymer, and you can easily have an entity whose properties are not predictable from the properties of the monomer -- an entity with new properties of vast importance in chemistry, biology, physics, and technology. DNA is a giant molecule. The polymers of plastics are giant molecules. Nanotubes are giant molecules. There will be giant molecules in the 21st century that we haven't even imagined yet. And after the 21st century, who knows? Science and technology do not stop. One provokes the other, new science provoking new technology that provokes new science that provokes new technology and so on, the interacting spiral unpredictable -- and with unpredictable transformations of our daily life.

One of the most fascinating properties of some giant molecules is their ability to self-organize -- to form solid or hollow spheres, sheets, tubes, sol/gel transformers, thermoplastic structures, all of them with a whole variety of emergent chemical and physical properties.

Self-organizing polymeric domains are of considerable interest in materials science, and are essential for the existence of biological systems.

Biological materials exhibit special physical or chemical functions as a result of special shapes or conformations that result from self-assembly. To act as enzymes, for example, proteins require specific amino acid sequences that result in specific foldings and conformational arrangements, the end product providing a "docking" site whose interaction with a transition state entity catalyzes a particular reaction.

Biological self-organizing polymers such as proteins and nucleic acids are much more complicated than the self-organizing polymers known to polymer chemists outside biochemistry, and a recent trend is for polymer chemists to look to the data on self-organizing biological macromolecules for hints about special synthetic innovations.

Given the importance of giant molecules in science, medicine, technology, and commerce, accessible information about giant molecules is important to the public interest. Walter Gratzer, a British biophysicist, presents a fascinating new book about giant molecules -- their history, their chemistry, their use in technology. It's a fine introduction to giant molecules, but especially fine for people in the general business world. The book is readable and the author is fully aware that giant molecules have been transformative for commerce. In addition, the focus of the book is on giant molecules in present and future technology -- which should make the book required reading for any serious enterprising industrialist.

Walter Gratzer. Giant Molecules: From Nylon to Nanotubes. Oxford University Press, 2009.