cover image The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another

The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another

Ainissa Ramirez. MIT, $27.95 (328p) ISBN 978-0-2620-4380-9

Ramirez, a materials scientist and science writer, devotes her fine debut to the impact of eight inventions. While some might seem obvious—steel railroad tracks, light bulbs, telegraph wires, and silicon chips—Ramirez has a knack for finding unexpected examples of their impact. Railway lines, she argues, by making consumer products newly available on a national scale, enabled the transformation of Christmas, with big business’s connivance, into today’s gift-giving occasion: “The Christmas we know was born in a boardroom, swaddled in steel.” Some of her choices may seem less obvious, including clocks and scientific glassware. But here, too, Ramirez makes a persuasive case for their transformative power. Standardizing and improving glass’s chemical configuration made it an invaluable material in scientific laboratories, thus leading to “an understanding of how our bodies work, how the heavens move, and how other worlds exist in a drop of water.” Making clocks more accurate, meanwhile, helped end the once-widespread practice of “segmented sleep,” in which people customarily slept in two separate phases over the course of a night. By explaining how inventions both exotic and mundane transformed society, Ramirez’s ingenious survey illuminates the effect of science in a manner accessible to a wide readership. (Apr.)