Winner of the Bronze Medal, Foreword Reviews Book Awards in the Science & Technology Category
Finalist for the 41st Los Angeles Times Book Award, in Science and Technology
Winner of the 2021 AAAS/Subaru Prize for Excellence in Science Books, Young Adult Science Book Winners
Winner, 2021 Sally Hacker Prize, Society for the History of Technology
Selected as one of the Best Summer Science Books Of 2020 by Science Friday
Selected by Amazon as one of Top 20 Science Books of 2020
Selected as one of Smithsonian Magazine's 10 Best Science Books of 2020
Winner of the 2021 Connecticut Book Award for Nonfiction
Nominee for the 2021 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award
"Entertaining and elucidating—popular science done right, with enthusiasm and without dumbing-down."
—Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW
"By explaining how inventions both exotic and mundane transformed society, Ramirez's ingenious survey illuminates the effect of science in a manner accessible to a wide readership."
"[T]echnology buffs should appreciate Ramirez's efforts to raise the attention of issues impacting scientists, engineers, and technologists."
"A fascinating new treatise"
“Ramirez is one of those rare science writers who can take her material, present it in wholly unexpected ways, and in the process reshape a reader’s fundamental understanding of a subject.”
"The Alchemy of Us is a brilliant historical examination of inventions that have changed society, and was recently recommended by Ed Yong. Materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez does a truly tremendous job drawing connections between historical events and the materials that made them possible. Her storytelling is superb—this is the book you can easily lose yourself in, especially if you mostly read fiction and want to try nonfiction, but are worried about being bored. Ramirez language is active and accessible. But her book is timely, paying special attention to the ways in which race and privilege and sex have played roles in the invention of certain materials or objects and their uses and influence. We need more voices of Black science communicators like Ramirez to fill our bookshelves, and she is certain to inspire more."
"Packed with engaging, little-known stories from the history of science, the book provides sharp, straightforward explanations of the materials science behind these tales.”
— Science News
"Material scientist Ainissa Ramirez offers up a highly readable exploration of how eight inventions—quartz clocks, steel rails, copper communication cables, silver photographic film, light bulbs, hard disks, labware and silicon chips—have both intentionally and inadvertently shaped our world."
– Smithsonian Magazine
"Enjoyable to a broad audience"
— Chemistry World
“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
Ramirez, a materials scientist and science writer, devotes her fine debut to the impact of eight inventions. While some might seem obvious—steel railroad tracks, light bulbs, telegraph wires, and silicon chips—Ramirez has a knack for finding unexpected examples of their impact. Railway lines, she argues, by making consumer products newly available on a national scale, enabled the transformation of Christmas, with big business’s connivance, into today’s gift-giving occasion: “The Christmas we know was born in a boardroom, swaddled in steel.” Some of her choices may seem less obvious, including clocks and scientific glassware. But here, too, Ramirez makes a persuasive case for their transformative power. Standardizing and improving glass’s chemical configuration made it an invaluable material in scientific laboratories, thus leading to “an understanding of how our bodies work, how the heavens move, and how other worlds exist in a drop of water.” Making clocks more accurate, meanwhile, helped end the once-widespread practice of “segmented sleep,” in which people customarily slept in two separate phases over the course of a night. By explaining how inventions both exotic and mundane transformed society, Ramirez’s ingenious survey illuminates the effect of science in a manner accessible to a wide readership. (Apr.)
Materials scientist and science communicator Ramirez (Newton's Football) examines the development, evolution, and social implications of eight indispensable and world-changing inventions. Organizing chapters by function—"Convey" covers Morse's electromagnetic telegraph but also the effects of social media on our ability to converse—the author adds vignettes to frame or serve as counterpoint to linear biographical sketches of historic innovators. She also urges readers to consider how our material innovations alter us in turn. Since artificial light disrupts sleep and computer algorithms tempt us into cognitive shallows, we cannot view technological change as overwhelmingly positive, maintains Ramirez. With depth and in a tone that contrasts with Tim Harford's broader Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, Ramirez considers both well-known and historically overlooked inventors, and depicts them as complicated, flawed individuals, with claims supported in a highly readable annotated bibliography. VERDICT Western (especially American) history or history of technology buffs should appreciate Ramirez's efforts to raise the attention of issues impacting scientists, engineers, and technologists.—Nancy R. Curtis, Univ. of Maine Lib., Orono
A user-friendly, wide-ranging history of material science.
A self-described “science evangelist,” Ramirez conveys enthusiasm for her field, which lies at the intersection of physics and chemistry and concerns how one can, in the words of an old mentor, “change the way that atoms act to make them do new things.” Timekeeping, for example, altered human behavior irrevocably. Extend Marshall McLuhan’s “extensions of man” theory of media, and you have an example of a technology that changed how we sleep. “Before the Industrial Revolution,” Ramirez writes, “our ancestors slept at night in two separate intervals,” going to bed around 9:00 or 10:00, awakening after midnight, staying up for an hour or so, and then returning to bed. This “segmented sleep” ended with the invention of not just the clock and its demand for regularity and punctuality, but also artificial light that allowed people to stay up later, turning night into day. (She doesn’t hit on it hard, but there was also the demand of factory and office owners that people show up and stay at work.) Material changes behavior, then—and that change evolves. For example, Samuel Morse missed arriving at his ailing wife’s bed as she lay dying, and she was buried without him, spurring the invention of the telegraph. Ramirez communicates gently but with depth of detail and meaning. One of the best moments in this satisfying book concerns how 43-year-old Carl Sagan came to decide what music should be sent into space on the Voyager mission to illustrate earthling sounds, an inventory that started off as European classical music and ended with a broad range of sounds from around the entire planet. Just so, Ramirez takes pains to include examples of innovators and scientists beyond the usual suspects (though Einstein and company do figure), making the text an inspiration to budding scientists of all backgrounds.
Entertaining and elucidating—popular science done right, with enthusiasm and without dumbing-down.