Watch MIT Press Live! Book Launch with Ainissa Ramirez

In a history of invention like no other, science “evangelist” Ainissa Ramirez goes behind the eureka! moments of the last three centuries to show how the materials humans have shaped us in return.

In her book The Alchemy of Us, Ramirez explores the little known histories of science: how our pursuit of precision in timepieces changed how we sleep; how the railroad helped commercialize Christmas; how the necessary brevity of the telegram influenced Hemingway's writing style; and how a young chemist exposed the use of Polaroid's cameras to create passbooks to track black citizens in apartheid, South Africa. 

Along the way, Ainissa will introduce us to the “hidden figures” of technological history—the women and minorities whose invaluable contributions time chose to forget.

Watch the video recording of this session below. 

About the Book

The Alchemy of Us examines eight inventions—clocks, steel rails, copper communication cables, photographic film, light bulbs, hard disks, scientific labware, and silicon chips—and reveals how they shaped the human experience. Ramirez tells the stories of the woman who sold time, the inventor who inspired Edison, and the hotheaded undertaker whose invention pointed the way to the computer. 

Ramirez shows not only how materials were shaped by inventors but also how those materials shaped culture, chronicling each invention and its consequences—intended and unintended. Filling in the gaps left by other books about technology, Ramirez showcases little-known inventors—particularly people of color and women—who had a significant impact but whose accomplishments have been hidden by mythmaking, bias, and convention. Doing so, she shows us the power of telling inclusive stories about technology. She also shows that innovation is universal—whether it's splicing beats with two turntables and a microphone or splicing genes with two test tubes and CRISPR.  

Learn more about the book.

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