The Alchemy of Us explores how new technologies have altered humans and society
The Alchemy of Us
MIT Press, $27.95
continually wielded materials, from steel to silicon, in new ways to send technology
leaping forward. But those technologies have unintentionally molded our bodies
and society, materials scientist and science writer Ainissa Ramirez argues in The
Alchemy of Us.
clocks — based on steel springs and then quartz crystals — kept society humming
along in unison. But with the Industrial Revolution’s focus on factory
schedules, humans became ever more obsessed with time, and our sleep habits
suffered. Likewise, electric lights made with carbon filaments let people work
and play for longer hours, but upset circadian rhythms, with a variety of negative
health impacts (SN: 10/17/16).
But the knock-on effects haven’t
been all bad: Telegraph wires of iron and copper
allowed news to travel quickly across the United States beginning in the
1840s. The technology’s demand for short communications helped shape the
clipped style of American newspapers, whose
reporters used the technology to send dispatches from afar. That style
inspired the concise, clear prose of Ernest Hemingway, Ramirez argues.
engaging, little-known stories from the history of science,
the book provides sharp, straightforward explanations of the materials science
behind these tales. Ramirez carefully selects the characters in her narratives,
making for a refreshing departure from the lone scientific genius trope.
Instead, we meet Ruth Belville, who carried around a highly accurate pocket
watch and “sold time” in early 20th century England, and chemist Caroline
Hunter and photographer Ken Williams, Polaroid employees who in the 1970s
fought their employer over the use of
instant photography to monitor South Africans during apartheid.
Bucking the tendency for hero
worship in histories of science, Ramirez
notes the failings of the figures she profiles. For example, Samuel Morse, known for his work on the
telegraph, supported slavery and railed against immigrants.
The author’s excitement is
infectious: As she raves about the
“marvelous metamorphosis that occurs when carbon combines with iron” to
make steel, the substance suddenly seems wondrous, with cakelike layers that
make it both malleable and strong. Steel
reappears in later chapters, weaving into stories of technologies that hinged on
improved steel production.
The connections Ramirez draws between seemingly disparate ideas in science and culture are engaging. Throughout the book, the message is somber, but hopeful: Materials change us in ways we hadn’t expected. But by being aware of these effects, society can choose how to respond.
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