The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another

The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another

by Ainissa Ramirez


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In the bestselling tradition of Stuff Matters and The Disappearing Spoon: a clever and engaging look at materials, the innovations they made possible, and how these technologies changed us.

In The Alchemy of Us, scientist and science writer Ainissa Ramirez examines eight inventions—clocks, steel rails, copper communication cables, photographic film, light bulbs, hard disks, scientific labware, and silicon chips—and reveals how they shaped the human experience. Ramirez tells the stories of the woman who sold time, the inventor who inspired Edison, and the hotheaded undertaker whose invention pointed the way to the computer. She describes, among other things, how our pursuit of precision in timepieces changed how we sleep; how the railroad helped commercialize Christmas; how the necessary brevity of the telegram influenced Hemingway's writing style; and how a young chemist exposed the use of Polaroid's cameras to create passbooks to track black citizens in apartheid South Africa. These fascinating and inspiring stories offer new perspectives on our relationships with technologies.

Ramirez shows not only how materials were shaped by inventors but also how those materials shaped culture, chronicling each invention and its consequences—intended and unintended. Filling in the gaps left by other books about technology, Ramirez showcases little-known inventors—particularly people of color and women—who had a significant impact but whose accomplishments have been hidden by mythmaking, bias, and convention. Doing so, she shows us the power of telling inclusive stories about technology. She also shows that innovation is universal—whether it's splicing beats with two turntables and a microphone or splicing genes with two test tubes and CRISPR.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262043809
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 04/07/2020
Series: The MIT Press
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 30,216
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Ainissa Ramirez is a materials scientist and sought-after public speaker and science communicator. A Brown and Stanford graduate, she has worked as a research scientist at Bell Labs and held academic positions at Yale University and MIT. She has written for Time, Scientific American, the American Scientist, and Forbes, and makes regular appearances on PBS's SciTech Now.

Table of Contents

Introduction xi

1 Interact:How better clocks, made possible by small metal springs and vibrating gems, helped us keep time, but also made us lose track of something precious 1

2 Connect:How steel stitched the country together with rails, but also how steel helped to manufacture culture 27

3 Convey:How telegraph wires of iron and later copper gave rise to rapid forms of communication, and how these wires shaped information-and meaning 49

4 Capture:How photographic materials captured us in visible and invisible ways 87

5 See:How carbon filaments pushed back the darkness to help us see, but also veiled our eyes pom viewing the impact of its overabundance 121

6 Share:How magnetic bits of data made it possible to share, but also made it difficult to stop what is being shared about us 145

7 Discover:How scientific glassware helped, us discover new medicines and helped us discover the secret to our electronic age 165

8 Think:How the creation of rudimentary telephone switches ushered in silicon chips for computers, but also rewired our brains 189

Epilogue 219

Acknowledgments 223

Notes 227

Annotated Bibliography 253

Quote Permissions 293

Illustration Credits 295

Index 299

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

We live in a world so dominated by our own inventions that, as Ainissa Ramirez observes, we've reinvented ourselves to accommodate them. The Alchemy of Us is at once timely, informative, and fascinating—a totally compelling work.

Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sixth Extinction

In The Alchemy of Us, Ainissa Ramirez tells the stories of the stuff that surrounds us in our modern world. Her tales are surprising, revealing, and delightfully told.

Carl Zimmer, author of She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

In this timely and beautifully written book, Ainissa Ramirez shows how developments in materials science have shaped lives, nations, and diverse communities. As well as championing an often neglected but vital scientific discipline, it is a wonderful account of how science and technology affect us all and why we must be alert to their implications and consequences.

Philip Ball, author of Beyond Weird and How to Grow a Human

This book is full of interesting vignettes of inventions you might think you know about. However, you are unlikely to know the colorful histories of the people behind the stories or all the consequences of the inventions, as spelled out here.

Professor Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics, University of Cambridge, and Master of Churchill College

It's easy to find a book that recounts the society-shaping powers of important inventions, but much harder to find one that peels back the unintended consequences of those creations, and reveals the forgotten innovators who were part of their stories. It's fortunate, then, that Ainissa Ramirez has written exactly that book, and done so with such rich and compelling prose. The Alchemy of Us carries important lessons about the cost of progress, the nature of invention, and importance of diversity. It's an important read in a time of upheaval.

Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes

A fascinating rumpus-room of a book, crowded with nook-and-cranny history you never knew, about unsung inventors and their world-changing endeavors. If you love whodunits, unintended consequences, eureka moments (or what technology may be doing to you, even as you read these words), then this is the book for you.

James Burke, filmmaker and author of Connections

Technology and inventions are changing our lives, but we less often appreciate how they are literally changing us—the ways that we talk, see, and think. In this engaging book, Ainissa Ramirez uncovers the stories of these changes and the people who made them happen.

Sean Carroll, author of Something Deeply Hidden

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