Peer Review

Peer Review

Our greatest scientists aren’t rare geniuses working some kind of magic. They’re people just like us. As a result, New Haven science writer Ainissa Ramirez says, we have a responsibility to pay attention to what they’re doing and voice our own opinions about it—especially when it comes to new technologies.

That’s the main lesson Ramirez hopes to impart to readers of her new book, The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another (2020). She’s happy to talk about driverless cars and artificial intelligence, but the book begins much further back, with the invention of purer steel—as Ramirez sees it, one of the key technologies that changed the world.

Few people know the story of Benjamin Huntsman, a “clever, inventive, and handy clockmaker” in 18th-century England. That’s because, Ramirez admits, “some of the science is actually very, very dry.” As a result, she looks for the quirky details to bring the history of science alive—in Huntsman’s case, the fact that workmen spent eight to 10 hours a day treading barefoot on a clay blend he came up with, in order to pop air bubbles and find pebbles. That allowed Huntsman to manufacture clay crucibles that wouldn’t crack when he filled them with blister steel and lowered them into a fiery furnace. By melting the steel, Huntsman was able to separate unwanted particles, which would float to the top, and ensure that carbon was uniformly mixed into the metal.

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From there, Ramirez makes the connections that give the invention meaning. Purer steel meant Huntsman could make better watch springs, so watches could keep more accurate time. By the turn of the 20th century, a woman named Ruth Belville could set her famous watch, named Arnold, at the Royal Observatory and then travel through London “selling” the time to merchants who required accuracy. The consequences of more precise time for the rest of us, Ramirez writes, included the creation of time zones; the loss of segmented sleep in favor of the expectation of an uninterrupted night (and the wrong-headed belief that uninterrupted sleep is normal); and the start of Albert Einstein’s musings about time, to name a few.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Ramirez is, herself, an inventor. When her father, a computer repairman at IBM, came home, “I was so excited to see him, but not to see him—because he had this suitcase full of tools,” she recalls with a laugh. “I took apart some stuff and couldn’t get it back together.” Studying science and engineering at college, however, wasn’t so much fun. Those classes “nearly flatlined” Ramirez’s career dreams. “The science lectures were far from being any fun or bringing any wonder,” she writes in the introduction to The Alchemy of Us. “In fact, these classes were dry and the lessons were designed to weed out students… I knew these subjects were better than how they were being taught…”

It wasn’t until she discovered materials science that her spark was reignited. After graduation, Ramirez went to work at Bell Labs as a material scientist in telecommunications, where she discovered the joys of collaboration. “My favorite time was lunchtime ’cause people would just talk about, ‘Oh, I was working on so-and-so, and it’s not working,’” she recalls. “Some of the best ideas came from the lunch table at Bell Labs.”

Among them was an invention called universal solder, for which Ramirez holds a patent. It came into being because the optical fibers Bell scientists were working with were nearly impossible to glue down; the glass would “creep” and make phone calls unreliable. Ramirez wondered if chemically bonding them would work better. She tried adding a small amount of rare earth elements, which are very reactive, to regular solder. The result was dubbed universal solder. “It can bond to anything,” she says.

It may be interesting to learn about successes like these. But invention takes lots of process and lots of failure—parts of the story we don’t often hear. For example, before he became the lauded inventor of the telegraph, Samuel B. Morse was a heartbroken portrait painter who had lost his wife three weeks after the birth of one of their children. His last letter had never reached her because she’d already been dead three days when it was written. “The death of his wife only strengthened yearning for faster correspondences…” Ramirez writes. Even after coming up with the idea for a telegraph years later, Morse suffered failure after failure in his attempts to get the idea to catch on. He wasn’t a superhuman genius, but he was extremely persistent.

Another story in The Alchemy of Us demonstrates a different kind of persistence: that of ordinary people questioning the uses of technology. Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams founded the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement in 1970 with a borrowed typewriter and some mimeographed flyers, after learning that their employer was complicit in the photographing of millions of black people in South Africa for the purpose of creating passbooks that controlled their work and their travel. Though it initially denied the claims, Polaroid eventually shut down its business with South Africa. The movement cost Hunter and Williams seven years and their jobs.

Every chapter in The Alchemy of Us looks at impacts like these of the inventions that—for good or for ill—have changed our world. Today, Ramirez says, we should be paying closer attention, not unlike Hunter and Williams, and not just accepting the work of scientists and inventors as if they’re brilliant people who know more than we do. Which brings us to issues like artificial intelligence and driverless cars. “n their algorithm, in their lines of code, they’re making ethical decisions,” Ramirez points out. “Who said that that’s okay? Are there ethicists that are conferring with these computer scientists? No.”

Sometimes we forget, she says, that science “is actually part of our social fabric.” Her hope is that by telling the quirky stories behind the inventions and making the scientists human, she’ll get us to take a closer look at the new technologies that are about to have their own—perhaps unanticipated—impacts on our lives.

The Alchemy of Us may intend to make science more interesting, fun and easier to digest, unlike those long-ago college lectures. But when it comes to discussing what we’re up against, Ramirez takes a different stance: “Let’s have a hard discussion about it.”

Ainissa Ramirez

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Michael Marsland.

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