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FREEDOM SPECIAL ISSUE

Ainissa Ramirez: ‘Materials and humans are in a dance with each other’

Lamat R Hasan | Updated on August 14, 2020 Published on August 14, 2020

Everyone’s in: Ramirez says she developed her storytelling skill when she had to explain science to her grandmother   -  IMAGE COURTESY: AINISSA RAMIREZ

Science writer Ainissa Ramirez decodes eight inventions that were transformational and liberating for humankind, and the one watchword for the ages — conservation

It’s not easy to write on science, especially for an audience that finds the subject intimidating. But that’s American materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez’s niche: She is a science communicator, as those who popularise and demystify science and scientific jargon are known. And she is out to bare the far-reaching and, often, damaging impacts of science.

In her latest book, The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, she examines how eight inventions — clocks, steel rails, copper communication cables, photographic film, light bulbs, hard disks, scientific labware and silicon chips — reshaped society, freeing us from drudgery, even as they enslaved us.

Time is money: Ruth Belville, who told the exact hour of the day for a fee   -  WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

 

So, you learn about how the railroad helped commercialise Christmas or how a young chemist exposed the misuse of Polaroid cameras to track black citizens. The most breathtaking story in the book, however, is of Ruth Belville — the original timekeeper who “sold time” and is responsible for our obsession with it ever since. Belville travelled to London every day with her highly accurate pocket watch named Arnold, made her way up a steep hill to the Royal Observatory to know the exact time. She would then visit storekeepers in London, who would reset their watches in time with Arnold. Belville, also known as The Greenwich Time Lady, provided this extraordinary service from 1892 (when she took over from her parents) until 1940, when she was over 80 years old.

 

Besides speaking internationally on the importance of making science fun, Ramirez, who earlier taught at Yale University, hosts a science podcast called Science Underground.

In an interview with BLink, the US-based Ramirez (51) says she developed her storytelling skill when she had to explain science to her grandmother: “I would compare what I learned (in school) to something that she (grandmother) knew in her everyday life. I do the same in my book.”

The Alchemy of Us How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another Ainissa Ramirez The MIT Press Non-fiction $17.95 (paperback) ₹1,481 (Kindle)

 

With this book she hopes to make people aware of how old technologies have shaped them and, given the potential risks from misuse of technology, to view future inventions with circumspection.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

In The Alchemy of Us you explore how humans shape technology and how technology shapes them back. When did this first occur to you? Is the relationship between humans and technology an unequal one?

As a materials scientist, I never really considered this relationship so directly. It was only while taking glassblowing classes a few years ago that this relationship between materials and humans became apparent. One evening, I went to my glass class after a very upsetting day at work and, during that class, my glass piece accidently fell to the floor. I was able to recover it with the help of my instructor and noticed afterwards I was in a much better mood. The act of shaping the glass had shaped me. It was this accident that set me on the path to explore this relationship between humans and matter, and uncover how they transformed each other. This was the birth of The Alchemy of Us.

After spending a lot of time considering this relationship between materials and humans, I tend to think that they are in a dance with each other. Humanity certainly needs materials to build things, and materials need us, in some ways, to advance them and create new combinations not found in nature. I don’t see this relationship as unequal, but symbiotic.

Is there a particular reason why you chose to study these eight inventions and their impacts on cultures

I believe eight instances that show how materials shaped society is a good start. In the book, I wanted to illustrate how simple inventions modified our world. My premise is that if these ordinary innovations can have a hand in transforming society, then those on the horizon, like AI [artificial intelligence or machine learning], will too. I also chose eight examples that served the book’s premise.

You have used backstories to bust myths such as how it wasn’t quite Thomas Edison who invented the first bulb, as he only perhaps improvised it. Or how Gordon Teal’s work was overshadowed. Please elaborate.

Many will know the name of Edison and connect him to the light bulb. But what I found is that Edison wasn’t interested in working on electric lights initially. It was only after visiting inventor William Wallace and seeing Wallace’s arc lamp that Edison decided to pursue his incandescent bulb. Edison’s meeting with Wallace is often left out of history books, but Wallace was a catalyst for Edison. Oftentimes, Edison is portrayed as an inspired, sole genius. What is closer to the truth is he had a great deal of help in developing his ideas.

As for Gordon Teal, his should be a household name, because he made the silicon transistor [which revolutionised the development of electronic gadgets] a reality. He is overshadowed for many reasons, one of them being that the Bell Labs physicists who initially discovered the transistor got the Nobel Prize. But what they made was never manufacturable. What Teal made was.

In society, we love sparks of innovation, but we rarely revere those who work hard to make things viable. This is why Teal is little known... I made sure he got his moment of glory in The Alchemy of Us. Readers will find out how he made silicon chips using a trick discovered from a 19th-century lab accident... We need to have a new definition of ‘genius’. Teal was willing to work hard until he got his answer. That is a working definition of genius that is far more inclusive.

The story about Ruth Belville, who “sold time”, is a winner. Is there a hidden feminist angle to this backstory?

There is no feminist agenda here. I am merely placing Ruth Belville where she rightfully belongs. If I had an agenda, it would be to provide readers an opportunity to see themselves in some way in the text. I achieve this by showing the human side of science and also by highlighting a diverse array of characters. Ruth Belville is one of them and she is the first person you meet in The Alchemy of Us. As such, from the outset, you know that this book about science is not going to be a stodgy and boring old tome... You are going to experience science and history differently. My desire for this book is to fill in the gaps. We all know of Edison, Morse, and Einstein. My book shows there were other contributors in science and technology, many never heard of before, like Ruth Belville.

You highlight the long-term dire effects of some inventions — such as blue light can cause cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Can we imagine a life without any materials science inventions? Is there a middle-path?

Specifically for light, what we can do is change the type of light during the course of the day. As for materials in general, inventions are not bad, per se. We have to make adjustments to them to make sure that they serve humanity in a healthy way. When the light bulb was created it was solving one problem: Too much dark. Now that we know there is a connection between light and our health, we can make modifications accordingly.

Sometimes it is a simple fix, like changing the type of light around us. In other cases, it might be something more involved. Overall, the change must be guided by science and medicine. Additionally, manufacturers and companies have to be willing to make these changes. This is why we need citizens that are informed, so that they can advocate for themselves when companies are unwilling.

You worry about helium vanishing from our planet. Why? Is there any other element that we should worry about too?

The loss of helium is a big concern in science. Most people know of helium for party balloons. But helium has a more important use. When it is cooled to its liquid form, it is colder than ice. And it can be used to help sensitive medical equipment perform [at their] best. MRIs are cooled with liquid helium, which prevents their images from being blurry. If we run out of helium, MRIs will not be available to detect maladies.

In science, there is no replacement for helium. Once it is used it goes into the atmosphere and is lost. The Earth does not make helium at the same rate that we use it, so we must conserve helium going forward.

As for other elements we should conserve, there are several. First off, the elements tantalum, tin, gold, and tungsten, which are all needed to make our cellphones, are called “conflict materials” — meaning, they are linked to human suffering.

Rare-earth elements, which we use in electric car batteries, solar cells, cellphone windows, and magnets, come from a single source, which is never a good idea. Generally, we could do a better job of extracting and recycling materials from our old gadgets; and, we need to do it safely and without much damage to the environment.

Is there any materials science invention at all that isn’t damaging our environment and can also be recycled?

This is a great question and still highly discussed in science. Long ago, the world was put on a path of making things and not considering its life after we were done using it. As such, there are huge landfills. Now we know that when we invent, we should consider how the materials in the product can be reused or recycled. We know that some metals and some glasses can be reclaimed and recycled easily. However, wood seems to be the most benign of these materials — it is naturally grown and can decay naturally too. I might put my vote on a material like bamboo for that reason.

Lamat R Hasan is an independent writer based in New Delhi

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Published on August 14, 2020
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