04-24 book pile

[Image above] Credit: Kimberly Farmer, Unsplash

A new book out this month, The Alchemy of Us by Ainissa Ramirez, tells the story of materials science through a perhaps unexpected lens—by sharing not only the stories of how humans have discovered materials innovations, but also how those innovations have shaped us, shaped society, and shaped history.

Author Ainissa Ramirez might be familiar to Ceramic Tech Today readers—we shared some of her “Materials Marvels” videos back in 2011. We recently caught up with Ramirez (below, AR) to ask a few questions about her new book.

What is your new book, The Alchemy of Us, about? 

AR: The Alchemy of Us explores eight materials science inventions and examines how they shaped society. Readers will see how quartz clocks, steel rails, copper communication cables, silver photographic films, carbon light bulb filaments, magnetic hard disks, glass labware, and silicon chips radically altered our culture, particularly how we sleep, how we speak, and how we think. There are many books about materials inventions, but this book takes the next step by showing what life was like as a result of those innovations.

One of the chapters in The Alchemy of Us is a love letter to glass. In it, I show readers how J.J. Thomson discovered the electron by observing the movement of cathode rays inside of a glass bulb. What readers will see is that our electronic age was made possible with the help of the ancient material of glass. With his scientific glassware, Thomson used his powers of observation to decipher that inside the cathode rays lived the electron, which was not known at the time. Glass has undergirded science—and society in general—for generations. The Alchemy of Us highlights the importance of this material as well as others and shows how we have shaped them but also how they shaped us.

We often consider our relationship with materials to be a one-way relationship—for instance, in materials science we manipulate the materials to our needs and applications. But is there more to that relationship?

AR: Usually we think that creating a new material is a one-way street because it is often presented that way to us in books and movies. But if we step back from the discovery and put it in a historical context, we can see that a few individuals made something, but their innovation changed society, too.

In The Alchemy of Us, I talk about the little-known origin story of Pyrex. One day, Bessie Littleton had broken her expensive casserole dish and told her husband, J.T. Littleton, a physicist at Corning, about it. J.T. was working on a new borosilicate glass and brought a small dish home for his wife to try in the kitchen. With it, she baked a beautiful cake, and what she birthed was a new industry for Corning. This glass did more than make great desserts, however, this glass was used in laboratories to create new medicines and cures. The Corning scientists were focused on the bonds between boron and other chemical compounds in the glass, but their innovation was more far reaching. Their discovery made it possible for people to live healthier lives using new medicines synthesized in Pyrex glassware as well as enjoy wonderful cakes baked in Pyrex kitchenware. The inventors created a new glass, and that glass, in turn, help to create a healthier (and happier) society. As I show in The Alchemy of Us, the relationship between humans and matter is not a one-way street but a two-way street.

Materials scientists most often talk about materials in terms of grain boundaries, coefficients of thermal expansion, fracture toughness, etc….in other words, properties of the materials that can be quantified by data. Yet materials can also have deep, almost emotional connections to us. Are these two views in tension, or do they fit together?

AR: There is a tension between materials concepts and our emotions, but it need not be that way.  I say this because I gained a deeper connection to materials when I decided to depart from my usual studies of small-scaled materials and began to work with materials that I could shape with my own hands.  A few years ago, I took a few glassblowing classes and was able to tie scientific principles to physical actions. For example, the scientific concept of viscosity was linked to swinging a glass piece to make it longer, making this abstract idea more real to me.  I did not possess the same intuitive flair or Fingerspitzengefühl for materials concepts in my laboratory work with thin films because I needed a machine to manipulate those materials.  But, when I was fashioning glass, the tools in the studio felt like an extension of my body, creating an emotional connection. It was also in my glassblowing class where I came up with the idea for my book The Alchemy of Us. After working on a glass vase, it dawned on me that I was in a dance with the glass—I was shaping it, and it was also shaping me. It was that glass class that set me on a journey to uncover this dance between humans and matter and explore how we transformed one another.

What is your personal connection to materials?

AR: I am a materials scientist.  I got my doctorate from Stanford, where I did my dissertation on amorphous carbon thin films, which are used as protective coatings for computer hard disks. So, for a long time my favorite element was carbon. After I graduated, I worked at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., on micromachines for telecommunications and also invented a new metal solder that bonds directly to glass. In that time, my favorite metal alloy was solder. I later joined the faculty at Yale and studied nickel titanium shape memory alloys. These materials return to a “programmed” shape when heated, because they undergo a phase transformation. So, for a long time, phase transformations captivated me, too.  

In my current incarnation as a science writer and science communicator, I use my deep knowledge of materials and explain their workings and implications to the general public. Having an intimate knowledge of materials has allowed me to write my book The Alchemy of Us in an approachable way, using analogies to explain science concepts. I also use storytelling to put materials in a historical context, which I honed after decades of desiring to share my love for materials with the public.

Materials science is a branch of science that we interact with in many ways on a daily basis—yet much of the public is still completely unaware of the impact of materials science on our lives. Why do you think there is this disconnected value?

AR: In The Alchemy of Us, I liken materials science to my home state of New Jersey—both are great but overshadowed by their overpowering neighbors. For New Jersey, they are New York City and Philadelphia, and for materials science they are physics and chemistry. Chemistry and physics have much better PR. As such, materials science has largely been out of the public’s view.  However, I think more people can connect to materials more so than both of these other fields. Everything is made from a material. Everything! And every material has a story. It is up to us (as scientists and researchers) to find that story and share it so that people feel more connected to materials and the world at large. Stories are stickier in a person’s memory than data. It is up to materials scientists to tell the public a story and they will want to know more about materials science, or any other field for that matter.

Interested in learning more? Join Ramirez for a virtual book tour on May 1!