'The Alchemy Of Us' Examines Inventions And How They've Shaped Human Life

May 26, 2020

Science has fascinated Ainissa Ramirez ever since she watched her very first episode of the PBS kids science show 3-2-1 Contact. It changed the way she looked at the world and put her on a career path. 

Today Ramirez is a materials scientist. She’s done research at Bell Labs and has taught at Yale and MIT. She’s also on a quest to transform our understanding of inventions: how they came to be and how they've changed our lives. In her new book, “The Alchemy of Us,” she writes, “In order to create the finest version of ourselves we need to think critically about the tools that surround us.”

WSHU’s Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser recently spoke to Ainissa Ramirez. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

I understand you were inspired to write this book after a particularly challenging glass blowing class. What happened during that class?

Well there’s a wonderful studio not far from me, in Branford. I live in New Haven, and I wanted to take some glass blowing classes, just on my bucket list. It was fun but I was also very scared.  Usually I would take a small amount of glass and make a small vase.  

But one day I came in in a very bad mood and actually took a lot of glass on the end of my pipe.  As I was making this piece, all I had to do was one last step. But I wasn’t really paying attention because I was talking to a friend. And the glass piece fell on the floor. My instructor came by and he fixed it, he reattached it to my pipe. And we were able to put it back together, although it now had a flattened side.

But as it was cooling and as I was calming down, I thought a little bit about what had happened. I was shaping the glass but the glass was actually shaping me. I came to the class in a bad mood  and I was leaving in a better mood. It might feel a little existential, but I just said, “I wonder how materials and humans have been shaping each other over the eons. So that’s what compelled me to write my book, “The Alchemy of Us.”

It’s clear in reading your book that this is not a dry scientific tome. You tell some very compelling stories about fascinating characters who played very significant roles in innovations that changed and are still changing our culture for better and for worse.  

The eight chapters highlight specific innovations. The chapter called “CONVEY” explores the development of the telegraph. “SEE” is all about the invention of artificial light and in “CAPTURE,” you focus on photography. With so many inventions over the millennia, how did you focus on just eight? 

[Laugh] Yeah. It could have been much, much longer. In the architecture of the book, I was looking for stories and they had to show how humans changed. And as you mentioned the chapters are given titles that are verbs. So when I was hunting for various stories, I found eight very compelling stories to do that. There are other materials that I could have focused on but these seem to sing the loudest. So that’s how I selected it. Each material had to show how it impacted culture by changing the human experience. 

In your first chapter “INTERACT,” you take on time itself through clocks and how they now control our sleep. How did that happen?

“INTERACT” is one of my favorite chapters because it starts off with a woman who sold time.  

Yes. I never heard that story before and I found it fascinating.

In the 19th century, when we became more and more obsessed with time, someone actually had a job where they would walk around with a watch that was certified from the Royal Observatory and show it to different businesses. Now before Ruth Bellville had her business, people slept differently. We used to sleep in two different segments. We would go to bed at 9:00. Go to sleep for about 3 1/2  hours, wake up for about an hour, do something around the house, read, talk to our neighbors who were also up, and then go back to sleep for another 3 1/2 hours. 

These segments were called first and second sleep, and everyone slept that way. And if you read old books, you’ll see words like first sleep and second sleep and that’s what they mean. As we became more obsessed with time, we had to wake up earlier so one of those segments got truncated and also with the development of electrical lights the first segment got truncated and they consolidated and that type of sleep is how we sleep today.    

And that, you point out, has an impact on health.

Oh absolutely. A lot of people say they have a form of insomnia, and historians actually think it’s harkening back to this old way of sleeping. And also in terms of our health, the artificial light also seems to be also impacting our health because our bodies actually have two modes. We have a daytime mode and a nighttime mode. 

How the body knows which mode to be in is based on blue light. Now when our ancestors were alive they lived by sunlight, which has a lot of blue in it, and candlelight which has less. But we live under artificial lights all the time. And when we're in daytime mode our bodies are actually in growth mode and that’s actually impacting us because our cells will respond to that growth mode in ways that we don’t necessarily want.  

You bring up the chapter about the electric light or artificial light , and of course you include Thomas Edison in the chapter which is called “SEE.” But it seems that your protagonist, I guess I can call him that, is really an inventor named William Wallace of Ansonia, Connecticut. Why is he a player in this story?

Well, I really loved William Wallace because if you read books about Edison, very thick books, you’ll always see William Wallace as a footnote. And I said, “Who is this guy?” I found out that Edison actually came to Ansonia and he met William Wallace. Wallace had created an early version of the electric light, it was an arc light so it was very, very bright, it was like a searchlight, so it wasn’t really useful for the home, but Edison saw this and said, “Hey, I think I’ll start working on electric lights.” And then he went back to Menlo Park in New Jersey and created his incandescent bulb. But he wouldn’t have had that idea if he didn’t come to Connecticut. And most people in Connecticut don’t know this. That Edison came up here. So that’s why I highlighted William Wallace. I wanted this little known inventor to get his moment in the sun. 

You mention the day Thomas Edison came to meet Wallace in Ansonia was really the beginning of a period of darkness for Wallace because he was cut out of the invention process from beyond that time.

That is absolutely right. Wallace thought his moment had come. The great Wizard of Menlo Park came to visit him to see what he had created. And Wallace had created not only this fantastic light, he created a special generator which transmitted the water power from the Naugatuck River into electricity because there wasn’t any electricity in the homes yet. And so Edison said well I want one of these electrical systems. He brought it back to his place in Menlo Park and he cut Wallace out of the deal. He just bought the units from Wallace and never included Wallace in his inventions moving forward.   

You also talk about the things that we’ve lost along with what we gained through these innovations. For example with the light bulb, we lost darkness. Tell us about that down side.

Well our ancestors used to look and see thousands of stars. Now if you and I look up, we’ll see about fifty. Recently I went on a trip and I went to a place that was very, very dark. And the starred sky is amazing. You feel very small and you feel connected to nature. So I do talk about how that has happened. As a result of having all these lights, this abundance of lights, it really disconnects us from really seeing how beautiful the night sky is.

And one of the illustrations you use, when talking about the effect on the environment is the life cycle of the lighting bug or the firefly.

Yeah, well on the East Coast we’re very lucky. We have this wonderful bug, the lightning bug or firefly. But it ends up on the West Coast the fireflies don’t make it that far. And the number of fireflies has been decreasing and the reason is because of the lights. Fireflies speak to each other  through a Morse code of flashes but it’s really important that they see each other in a dark sky. They can see each other, connect, and make future fireflies. But when there’s a street light overhead, the female firefly doesn’t know to flash back to the male firefly so they don’t meet.  So that’s why their numbers are decreasing. Even though artificial lights are convenient for us, for humans, they’re really making things difficult for fireflies. 

Since you mentioned the Morse Code that the fireflies use, I’d like to jump over to “CONVEY,” the third chapter in the book about telegraph wires and the invention of the telegraph with Samuel B. Morse. You connect Morse with a number of things in culture that have changed over the years, including the way we write and also, a lack of personal social interaction due to things like texting and emails. Could you connect those dots for us?

Sure. When Morse was first making his telegraph he would work with his assistant (Alfred Vail). And he would chide him and say, “condense your language,” which was harsh language back in those days. And what he was trying to tell Vail is to not write so much when sending a message.

What Vail would do or what Morse would do, is they would write their letters by longhand and then convert all the letters in the alphabet in the word to dots and dashes, and type in those dots and dashes, figure out what those dots and dashes mean and then write out the word. That took a lot of time. 

And so Morse would get a message from Vail and it would be dash, four dots and another dot and you’d convert it and you’d seek the word “the.” That’s a lot of work for a word that doesn’t do very much. So he was telling Vail to shorten what you’re saying in the message that you’re transmitting. 

It ends up that telegraphs become very popular in society and telegraph officers would tell customers to be brief because the telegraph was great at sending information long distances but it couldn’t handle a lot of messages. And so the officers wanted customers to just send very short messages so they could keep it available for the next set of customers. 

Telegraphs became popular in newsrooms and editors would tell their reporters to be succinct, again one of the limitation of their prose was because of the telegraph. Now there was one reporter that really loved this style of writing with short declarative sentences. His name was Earnest Hemingway. So the way that he writes is a style that was designed by the use of the telegraph. So this is how one technology, this technology of the telegraph has changed language.  

Now the other thing that you mention is about how the telegraph has squeezed out the human part. Morse use to write very, very long letters and used wonderful prose that described everything around him. But when you use the telegraph, you don’t have that luxury. 

And so the progeny of the telegraph is text messages. 

And again when we as humans communicate, we use a lot of different ways of getting a message across besides words. We can look at body language, we can look at people’s eyes. And as a result of communicating in this one-dimensional way, what historians, linguists and scholars are concerned with is that we’re reducing our ability to empathize. 

So that’s one of the things that I also point to in “The Alchemy of Us,” is that this technology is useful in getting information across but it’s deteriorating our ability to be human with each other, that is to empathize and relate to one another.  

Your chapter about photography, called “CAPTURE” explores several stories and several dimensions of how photography affected culture in the years following its invention and development. One I’d like to talk about, you explaining how the development of film actually contributed to the stereotyping of African Americans. Can you please connect those dots for us. 

Well it ends up that the most photographed person in the world at one point was Frederick Douglass. Not Lincoln, not Twain. Frederick Douglass. Now why was he so crazy about getting selfies of himself? Well he was trying to use his image as a way to combat the negative stereotypes about African Americans.  here were a lot of characters that were hand-drawn and they would show people with exaggerated expressions, with eyes that were white and were bugging out and wide smiles. And if you’ve ever seen a photograph of Frederick Douglass – he looks so regal, he’s a handsome looking guy – he wanted to combat that image. And so that’s the reason why every time he went by a portraiture place for pictures, he would go in to take his pictures because those pictures would also be sold. And so he wanted to use this as a way to combat that stereotype.  

Maybe you could talk a bit more about the technical issue that resulted in film really all the way into the later part of the 20th century resulting in film that did not expose correctly darker skin.

Ok that’s a very good question. In the 1950s, 1960s, African American mothers were looking at class photos of their children and they saw something that didn’t look right. The black children did not come out as well as the white children. And African American mothers they asked manufactures of film to fix this. What they had seen is that actually there was a bias in the film.  The film was tailormade or was optimized for people with lighter skin because the main customer were people of lighter complexion. Initially camera film was egalitarian because it was homemade chemistry that you could do in your kitchen. Whoever took a picture, their likeness would be depicted. But as it became manufactured by companies, they tailored the process so that it was optimized for a certain population. And this is what these African American mothers saw in the 1950s. 

And so after some chiding, not from these African American mothers, even though they wrote letters. It was only when two businesses, furniture manufacturers and confectioners that made chocolate, when they told this manufacturer that they had to change their film, that changes happened. 

Because they wanted their chocolates of different flavors, you know, white chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate. They wanted people to be able to discern those different types of chocolate and in the current form of the film. That wasn’t happening. So eventually the formulation was changed so that the film was democratic and could pick up different hues of chocolate as well as different hues of skin. 

And I can’t let you go without asking for your perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m wondering if there’s an innovation from our past that might have created this unfortunate situation?

I don’t know if there’s an innovation in our past. We’ve benefited from not having pandemics  because we’ve got tremendous medicines. And we’ve got new technologies that can do things that couldn’t happen as quickly in the past. We can trace. We can test. So we’ve got things to combat it a little bit better. We’re not actually using them as well as we could, but technologies can definitely help.

From your vantage point as a scientist and a science communicator, how do you see this pandemic transforming perhaps science and our culture looking forward?

This pandemic is also because people feel disconnected from science. I think if people were a little bit more informed about how things work, they would adhere, they would comply a little bit more. Because we’ve had a little bit of a breakdown with how we teach science, STEM in particular, we don’t see how we’re part of a global system, that what you do affects me. As scientists we forgot to teach that and so as a result, people don’t see that their actions actually have some ripple effect outward.  

So that’s kind of what I see as the impact. And I hope that going forward science, science communicators and also society in general will just realize that there’s an ecology, that what you do affects other people although you may not be able to see them.

My ignorance is showing here now. You are a materials scientist. Can you explain just what that is?

I tell people I’m an atom whisperer. Materials science sits where chemistry and physics overlap.  So chemistry is interested in how things bond and physicists are interested in how materials behave in different situations and I want to show how one thing is linked to the other. So that is what materials science is. It’s not very well-known but a lot of the things you take for granted like the cell phone and the fact that this phone call being made by microphone, that’s all materials science.