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Book review: ‘The Alchemy of Us’ by Ainissa Ramirez

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How innovations in materials have shaped human history.

From the moment 19th Century Londoner Ruth Belville calibrates her pocket watch by hiking daily to Greenwich for a reliable reference from the Royal Observatory, we enter Ainissa Ramirez’s fascinating world.

The author of ‘The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another’ (The MIT Press, £22.50, ISBN 9780262043809), in one sharply observed anecdote, reveals to the reader the impact that materials have had on the way we live.

If Benjamin Huntsman hadn’t invented crucible steel in the early 18th century, for example, Belville would not have been able to sell accurate readings of the time to her clients. From the squalid pubs of the East End that needed to know the time to comply with new licensing laws to the millionaires who relished the status symbol of GMT in their homes, time became a commodity that changed not only the way we lived but our language too, as words and concepts such as timetables, time zones and timekeeping became currency.

According to Ramirez, a US-based scientist and science writer, materials science doesn’t get the attention it deserves and those that study it get caught between a rock and a hard place: physics and chemistry. In this brilliant book, she prefaces her assessment of materials that influenced our lives with an examination of her own academic upbringing.

At university, chemistry was just cooking, maths was unmotivating and engineering was all about the study of steam engines. There was nothing, it seemed, that could satisfy her thirst for answering questions such as why rubber makes shoes comfortable, glasses improve your eyesight or even why we don’t fall through the floor. It wasn’t until she realised that she was interested in materials science that she found her niche.

This book is her fulfilment of a promise she made that no one should ever have to suffer science education the way she did.

The result is little short of spellbinding. In this clever book, Ramirez takes us on a whistle-stop tour of how eight different innovations in materials affect our daily lives. We are told how the invention of better springs meant that clocks could take over our world and even have a fundamental impact on the way we sleep (up until the 19th century humans routinely slept twice a day).

She explains how Henry Bessemer transformed steel and so transformed our rail networks, with steel rails becoming the ‘connective tissue of the country’. You can’t run a railway without decent timekeeping and so Ramirez’s chapters reach out to each other, creating a fascinating picture of a world under technological development.

As ‘The Alchemy of Us’ progresses, the author considers eight innovations and how they shaped the human experience. Moving on from clocks and steel rails, she turns her attention to copper communication cables, photographic film, the light bulb, computer drives, scientific labware and silicon chips, in each case digging into the well-known stories to find perspectives on our relationship with technology and in particular materials. Already one of the engineering books of the year.

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