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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
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. Finalist for the 41st Los Angeles Times Book Award in Science and Technology and selected as one of the Best Summer Science Books Of 2020 by Science Friday.

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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262542265
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 04/06/2021
Series: Mit Press
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 92,498
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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 1

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.

2 Connect 27

How steel stitched the country together with rails, but also how steel helped to manufacture culture.

3 Convey 49

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

4 Capture 87

How photographic materials captured us in visible and invisible ways.

5 See 121

How carbon filaments pushed back the darkness to help us see, but also veiled our eyes from viewing the impact of its overabundance.

6 Share 145

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

7 Discover 165

How scientific glassware helped us discover new medicines and helped us discover the secret to our electronic age.

8 Think 189

How the creation of rudimentary telephone switches ushered in silicon chips for computers, but also rewired our brains.

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

“Ramirez’s beautifully written book is the perfect reminder that science and engineering sit firmly within society, both affected by culture and in turn affecting it.”
 —Angela Saini, science journalist and author

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