"I hope we all learn not to put things off. If something needs to be done, do it. If something needs to be said, say it. If something needs to be changed, change it. If you are afraid, well, do it anyway."
-- Ainissa Ramirez
We checked in with scientist, inventor, "Science Evangelist," and passionate advocate for STEM education, Ainissa Ramirez, author of the new book, The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another (2020).
The book tells the story of eight world-changing inventions and the little-known inventors behind them -- particularly people of color and women. The inventions include clocks, steel rails, copper communication cables, photographic film, light bulbs, hard disks, scientific labware, and silicon chips.
Writing in praise, Pulitzer-winning science writer Elizabeth Kolbert said, "We live in a world so dominated by our own inventions that, as Ainissa Ramirez observes, we've reinvented ourselves to accommodate them. The Alchemy of Us is at once timely, informative, and fascinating—a totally compelling work." New York Times science columnist Carl Zimmer said, "Her tales are surprising, revealing, and delightfully told." Science writer Ed Yong called it, "an important read in a time of upheaval." Smithsonian Magazine named it one of the "Ten Best Science Books of 2020."
A materials scientist and an inventor herself, Dr. Ramirez co-developed a "universal solder" that can bond metal to glass, ceramics, diamond, and semiconductor oxide substrates. Formerly a research scientist at Bell Labs, she has held academic positions at Yale University and MIT. She is a past contributor to TIME, Scientific American, American Scientist, and Forbes. She appears regularly on PBS's SciTech Now, and hosts the science podcast Science Underground.
We spoke with Dr. Ramirez about her hopes for the coming year.
What are you most looking forward to?
It goes without saying that I look forward to being with my friends and family again. I have a long list of people I want to hug. I can’t wait for when it is safe to be together.
As a writer though, admittedly, I am also looking forward to the second chance that next year holds for my book. My book The Alchemy of Us came out as the pandemic began. Long before the coronavirus landed in the US, I was scheduled to give many book talks at bookstores and other venues. They were all cancelled. Fortunately, I was able to present my book through live-streamed events. I was extremely grateful for these opportunities to connect virtually with audiences, and share with them what took me years to write.
But I do look forward to when we can all congregate safely again! It will feel like a celebration — not just for my book but for the fact that we all made it out of this very dark chapter. I think I will be giving out a whole lot of hugs then!
What is your biggest hope for America this year?
This pandemic has put a spotlight on the parts of society that don’t work. My hope for 2021 is that we get to the hard work of fixing where our nation is broken: We need to care for our elderly better. We need to support healthcare workers better. We need to pay teachers better. We need to provide better safety nets for those who are struggling. We need to explain science to the general public better. Most of all, we need to address the systemic racism this pandemic has brightly illuminated. We also need more accountability in government and a better healthcare system. My hope is that this crisis catalyzes something good.
What's the most important thing we can learn from the pandemic?
I hope we all learn not to put things off. If something needs to be done, do it. If something needs to be said, say it. If something needs to be changed, change it. If you are afraid, well, do it anyway. What we have all learned from the pandemic is that life is precious, life is fragile, and life is brief. As such, it would behoove us all not to put things on hold.
What activity are you most looking forward to enjoying after pandemic restrictions are lifted?
I enjoy traveling. The reason why I like to travel is that it gives me a fresh perspective about my life. Visiting other countries can achieve this, but so can visiting national parks. When I am able to see the wonders of the world, my reverence for the planet washes over me.
What new social or technological development excites you the most?
There is a book by Thomas Kuhn called The Structure of Revolutions where he coined a term “paradigm shift.” This is the event where life as we know it changes significantly. I am excited about reading, learning, and finding those paradigm shifts. In my book The Alchemy of Us, these paradigm shifts are small inventions like the lightbulb and the telegraph, which allowed society to operate at night and to communicate rapidly.
I am curious to know what will be the new paradigm shifts in our world today. I haven’t identified them yet, but the hunt for them is something that is exciting me right now.
What did you most enjoy about writing The Alchemy of Us?
I love the research part of writing a book. I love having an idea and learning all I can about it. That requires that I spend lots of time hunting inside the stacks of libraries and in the collections of archives. When I am in these spaces, I am looking for gems. These gems are some morsel of information that I did not know. Sometimes, gems just point me in the direction I should go. When in the archives, I have no idea what these gems will be and where I will find them.
Writing a book is not a logical process. Writing a book requires a hunting-and-gathering approach. It is inefficient. It is organic. It requires luck and serendipity. That is why the feeling of finding a gem is so satisfying. There is nothing like the moment when you find one of these gems. Nothing. You feel amazing. I live for those moments.
What idea or field are you most looking forward to exploring in 2021?
I am writing children’s picture books about little-known inventors. So, I am looking forward to learning more about these people and what they created. I am also exploring materials science discoveries for another book. I look forward to learning a lot of new things. As I write this materials science book, I also look forward to translating dry facts into something that a reader will enjoy learning about. Sometimes, it is hard work to translate science, and I cannot say that it is enjoyable all the time. But what I know for certain is that when I finally find the answer it will be such a satisfying feeling. For all these reasons, I look forward to what this work will teach me and to all the great things I will have to share.
More Ainissa Ramirez:
How electric lighting changed our sleep, and other stories in materials science, Ars Technica, January 1, 2021
This Teacher Wants To Excite Your Inner Scientist, All Things Considered, NPR, September 2015