The Alchemy of Us
Air Date: May 18, 2020
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Scientist Ainissa Ramirez is author of the new MIT Press volume “The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another.” Publisher’s Weekly says “Ramirez ingeniously explains how inventions both exotic and mundane have transformed society: steel, railroad tracks, light bulbs, telegraph wires, and silicon chips and Ramirez has a knack for finding unexpected examples of their impact.” Previously she coauthored “Newton’s Football, The Science Behind America’s Game” and “Save Our Science: How to Inspire a New Generation of Scientists.” Ramirez received her training in material science and engineering from Brown and Stanford. Welcome, Dr. Ramirez, a pleasure to have you here.
RAMIREZ: Lovely to be here.
HEFFNER: Let’s start with what inspired this subject for you to tackle, which is really something of universal applicability and appeal to anyone.
RAMIREZ: Right. That’s a good point. Well, I thought of the book as an invitation. When I, I meet a lot of people and they don’t really feel connected with science. And so I thought this book would be a connection to science: to look at it in the past and also to prepare us for what’s going on in the future as well. So, and also I’m a material scientist. Most people don’t know what that is.
HEFFNER: What does that mean?
RAMIREZ: All right. See, my mother says the same thing. A material scientist is a person who’s interested in how atoms interact and how they interact translates into how their overall material will perform. Think of it this way. We think about the best materials for different purposes. I can tell you what the best material is for building a building, for making a cup, those kinds of things. But you really have to know what’s going on, on the physical level to really just make those decisions.
Most people don’t know what that is and it’s a very important field. It’s the reason why this table is hard, why the lights are working. And what I wanted people to do is feel a little more connected to this field that most people don’t know about.
HEFFNER: So it’s a combination of chemistry and physics.
RAMIREZ: It is, it is. I would say that if chemistry and physics got together, their baby would be material science and engineering.
HEFFNER: And which example, just to start the conversation, most inspired you in the process of writing this book, in terms of how the material came to be or how it will be in the future?
RAMIREZ: Well, thing that really struck me was when I thought about the light bulb. And when you think about the light bulb, you think about Edison and you think, okay, people know that story. But it ends up that Edison was actually inspired to examine the light bulb, to actually explore it when he visited Connecticut, which is where I live, not far from where I am, about two cities over Edison came to visit a gentleman named William Wallace in Ansonia. William Wallace had created a very, very bright electric light. And this was exciting because before that lights were candles and gas lamps. And some of them were sooty and smelly. And so this was electricity. And so this was a very clean source, but it was very, very bright. And so Edison came to see it. And Edison in his very, you know, boisterous style said, you know what Wallace, I think I can beat you. And he went back to Menlo Park and he created the incandescent light bulb. So that was fascinating because I had never heard of this William Wallace. And when I looked at books, he would always be in the footnote. So in my book, I tell you a little bit about William Wallace, what was his motivation and what did he create it and what did he create and why he was the catalyst for the light bulb that we know today.
HEFFNER: Do you think those scientists were aware of the consequences of the light? Like the material consequence?
RAMIREZ: No, I mean, people and I’m a scientist, we are just solving a problem and we’re never really trained to think about, okay, what are the implications? What’s changed as a result of that? And so that’s what this book does. It’s a pause to look at inventions that have already been created and figure out what their consequences were intended and unintended. And I’m hoping that this will be a training ground, not only for scientists, future scientists, current scientists, but also for the general public because they should have a voice when we have new technologies coming in, they should feel empowered to decide if this is something that is a good idea or not.
HEFFNER: It doesn’t seem adequate anymore for inventors to be unconcerned with their consequences.
RAMIREZ: And it’s, and it’s a poor excuse to say, well, I don’t think about those things. We know that a lot of things have come our way and we wish that they didn’t happen or we could have tailored them a different way. So it’s an important dialogue and discussion to have about inventions and also knowing about their impact.
HEFFNER: Two other inventions I hope you can expound on here: rail tracks and the engineering, the chemical engineering of glassware.
HEFFNER: Let’s start with the rail tracks.
RAMIREZ: Okay. So railroads and steel, we don’t think about steel, but steel is what’s made our world the way it is, department, stores, skyscrapers all made possible with steel you couldn’t have that. You have a very strong material that’s able to go to stand and doesn’t really require a lot of weight. So that’s the impact of steel. It also made it possible for the railroad tracks to be possible. You know, before 1850, the world; United States was very, very separated for lots of reasons. And one is that we couldn’t really travel very far. If I wanted to get from let’s say Boston to DC, it would take, you know, five days by stagecoach. With the railroads you can do that in just a day. So people didn’t travel, people didn’t go very, very far. And so the steel I say is a way to connect those, connect society. But what I also say is that at the time America was in the midst of the industrial revolution; we were creating a lot of materials before we had scarcity. Now we had excess. And so industrialists need to figure, needed to figure out how to get rid of all of these different materials, how to entice people to consume these things. And so I propose that there was this little holiday called Christmas that was instigated as a result of that. Christmas was a minor holiday. It had parts of old traditions, but it never; it was never the commercial incarnation that we know today,
HEFFNER: The transcontinental railroad, what, what ultimately emerged in terms of the innovation of the railways because there’ve been stages of progress and we look at rail today as an area that is obsolete. So what inspired the impetus, you know,
RAMIREZ: To create it?
HEFFNER: To create it, not knowing that it was going to commercialize Christmas, create a real economic boom.
RAMIREZ: Right. There was definitely a need for steel because people knew that they wanted to transport products and people very quickly. And the material that was used, well, the initial rails were wood. Those didn’t last very long at all. Then they also used iron and they let, those tracks, lasted about two years. But with steel, you would get 18 years and it’s costly to keep having to replace these rails. So once you had something in place that you knew that would last for a long time, then you can start building the circulatory system for commerce. I can get materials from Minnesota and from Louisiana and from California and start building an industry where things are brought from different parts and then sold. So in order, but in order for that to happen, people really had to figure out how to get the circulatory system together. And that was steel.
HEFFNER: Right. How would you assess the materials of our infrastructure today because compared to other developed countries, economically developed countries, are we using materials that are innovative enough or are we still set on latching onto materials of the past?
RAMIREZ: You raise a good question. Although steel is old, they’re still doing lots and lots of development in steel. It’s not the hottest topic, but it definitely needs to be something that’s continuous continuously advanced. They’re making steels that are strong but also lighter. That’s important because if you want cars and maybe even parts of planes, if you want to reduce the weight that will make things more fuel efficient. So people are still working on that. And in terms of manufacture, a lot of that is actually going up, going on abroad,
HEFFNER: Right. Well, there is a movement now to not export the creation of those materials. And historically there’s quite an infatuation with steel and steel workers and mining of course as well.
RMIREZ: The knowhow for making steel is something that we have and you don’t need a whole lot of scientists to be working on that. The thing about steel is its production. You need a lot of people to be manufacturing it. That’s the skill that we need to develop if we want to go back to being the manufacturing giants that we are in steel. So, so those are definitely in place. You don’t need a lot of you don’t need a lot of brainpower to do that. You need some, but what you really need is a lot of people on board to make the huge amounts of steel and to have that kind of knowhow, it’s very sophisticated to know how to make steel.
HEFFNER: What about the environmental ramifications?
RAMIREZ: Well, you know, it requires coal and so that’s probably not good for the environment. So what we’ll have to do is think about how to be a little bit more sustainable. Do we recycle more? Do we do use different products? The formula for making steel is carbon and iron. So where does the carbon come from? Does it have to be something that we mine or does it; can it be some other source? Those are some of the questions that people would have to address.
HEFFNER: And what prompted you to think about these older material, and discovering or rediscovering the old materials?
RAMIREZ: Well, I was trying to figure out how to get people to be connected to things that they walk by all the time. And if I wrote a book that was just non-fiction, which was fact after fact after fact, here’s the formula for making steel I’m really not going to entice anybody. So in the book, “The Alchemy of Us,” I actually tell you the story of the inventor of steel, which is Henry Bessemer. Henry Bessemer was one of the inventors of steel. He was a gentleman who lived in the UK and he was just such – this caricature and he’s like really big, got lanky legs, and was known to be a really a great innovator. He made a lot of different things. He had no knowledge in steel. I talk about this because I want people to feel connected to inventing. A lot of people feel like, Oh, I can’t be a scientist, I don’t know anything about that. Well, Henry Bessemer didn’t know anything about steel either, but that didn’t stop him from trying. And his intentions were not necessarily for the railroads. He was trying to figure out how to, he was, he was an industrialist. He wanted to make money. And the UK was in the midst of the war. And so he wanted to make money for munitions. I can make materials for cannons. It took him a long time to figure that out. And by the time you figured it out, the war was over. So he had this wonderful material of steel and he had nowhere to go with it. So then he directed it to the railroads. So that’s the story. So it was all by accident. And so his ability to make a very strong material for railroads has given rise to us now having this wonderful circulatory system.
So you can see it’s more of a pinball kind of approach. No one really intends, okay, I’m going to think about steel and I’m going to make a circulatory system and I’m going to give, this is going to give rise to Christmas.
HEFFNER: And one thing that you talk about in the book is the standardization and improvement of glass and its chemical configuration.
RAMIREZ: Right. Right.
HEFFNER: What is the chemical configuration of glass and why was it important?
RAMIREZ: Well glass mostly, it comes from sand, but it had to have, there are certain formulations that you need to have of glass in order to perform in different environments. People think of old glass thermometers. It ends up that old thermometers, and I’m talking, you know, 1800s. Those thermometers were not very reliable because you would use them and you would shake it down for the Millennials, these are not digital to it, but the mercury would actually go down to a very low level and then you try and measure how hot something got, well, it wouldn’t go back to its original level because the glass was changed. Glass was constraining and moving that mercury up. So that’s not good for science if you’re trying to register how hot something gets and your device isn’t accurate, then you really can’t make any advances. So that was one problem. The other is that glasses were used for microscopes and telescopes, but they weren’t allowing light to pass through uniformly. So if you imagine 3-D glasses where the blue and the reds are separated, that’s what glass looked like. It was very hard to look into the sky and identify stars if you’re really not seeing things clearly. So there was definitely a need to have formulations that were standardized and that worked really well.
So in the book I talk about the gentleman Otto Schottt, about how he was able to create these things: something that seems completely mundane but without good glass science would be absolutely blind. So I tell that story.
HEFFNER: In order to be cognizant of the importance of glass, how is it used in its medical applications?
RAMIREZ: Oh, it’s used everywhere. I mean it’s the material for science. It’s used in observation. So for telegraph, sorry, for telescopes and microscopes magnifying glasses, you need good glass. It holds beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks and everything that you use to measure or is usually with glass. So it’s the tool, it’s the, it’s the tool that everything is kind of carried in chemistry and, also in medicine we use petri dishes if we’re going to look at stains of different bacteria, that all happens with glass because it’s all based on what science does best, which is to observe. And so you really need something clear to see how things are changing with the ways that you’re making modifications.
HEFFNER: Has anyone ever tried to compete with glass and its monopoly on the scientific process? Could it be possible to create a material that’s even more effective?
RAMIREZ: Maybe the Marvel Comics would come up with something? I think that you know, glasses won’t work for, you know, really, really high temperatures. And some glasses won’t work in certain acids; so then you have to use a different material. Maybe you use quartz, but glass is, it’s so abundant because it comes from sand. You really can’t beat the source. We’ve been using for a very long time. It’s very moldable. I mean, you and I can go into a glass studio and make what we need as opposed to a metal, which you would have to fashion in a machine shop, takes a lot of time. So it’s, it’s you know, it’s a very simple material, but it’s, it’s perfect for science.
HEFFNER: Also you talk about the telegraph.
HEFFNER: What was the science of the telegraph and how was it invented?
RAMIREZ: Well, the science was very simple. Let’s say that you have electricity moving through a wire. You’re at one end and I’m at the other and you want to relay a message to me. How are you going to relay a message? Well, you can shut off the impulses of the electricity for me to, and I can translate that, that, okay. Alexander is trying to tell me something and if you set up a code, well that I can probably decipher that code. And that’s simply what a Telegraph is based on. It’s, it’s using electricity, but it’s shutting it on and off at certain lens dots and dashes, Morse code so that you can create this, this message, which I can decipher.
HEFFNER: How do you look at the materials of the Internet versus the materials of the telegraph really, because the telegraph was the first expression of the Internet?
RAMIREZ: Sure. The Telegraph used wire used it, used iron wire and then eventually copper wire, it could only send one message this way and another message in the opposite direction. And then there were some sophisticated ways to get multiple messages. With the optical fibers that are used in the Internet you can send multiple, you know, thousands of messages by very sophisticated ways of chopping up the information so that it gets to where it needs to go. So copper and iron wires had their limitations. They were the first Internet. But we learned from those materials so that we can make more sophisticated ways with optical fibers.
HEFFNER: Where would you suggest folks of any age to explore these materials so that they can actually feel and touch them?
RAMIREZ: And touch them –
HEFFNER: In a way that’s accessible?
RAMIREZ: Oh, that’s a great idea. A lot of museums, hands-on museums, they will have some things that will show you different material. You can see you, you can feel different material, see how heavy they are, look at copper, see how well it conducts. There’s a lot of science museums that would be able to do.
HEFFNER: Is there one in particular you might recommend?
RAMIREZ: Well, in the Bay Area in San Francisco, like the Tech Museum has a lot of these materials because we’re talking about materials that are related to optical fibers. They have some. Corning Museum in New York: They have those optical fibers there. So, you know there’s a lot of museums that have it.
HEFFNER: Let’s talk more broadly about the threat to scientific knowledge and the, the danger of ignorance. How would you characterize today the challenges to scientific pursuit?
RAMIREZ: You raise a very, very good point. I’m very interested in science education because if people felt more empowered to ask questions, we probably wouldn’t be where we are today. There’s, there’s sort of like this boldness that if you don’t know it’s okay and you say, well, I don’t know math or I don’t, I don’t know anything about that. But decisions are being made on your behalf by giving away that power. So I think that if we go back and I spend a lot of time with young people and give lectures about the importance of science so that they can feel curious again. Because if you can, if you feel, if you feel okay to ask questions, you’ll find you’ll finally find an answer that’s satisfying to you. And then you’ll be able to make decisions for yourself because decisions are kind of being made for you. So that’s kind of the kernel and you know, what’s going on in the larger ecosystem too, they’re taking advantage of the fact that people don’t know about science and don’t feel comfortable asking questions.
HEFFNER: Is it that people don’t know about science or is it a refusal to acknowledge that science has to be part of an informed society and it has to take some precedent over myth, mythology.
RAMIREZ: Yeah. Right. Well, that was the reason why I had spent so much time working on the book because when you write science fact, facts don’t work for everyone. This is, we’re in post-truth, you know, facts don’t work. Myths do. And so I thought that if I wrote stories as I do in the book, that we can have new myths that people can embrace. And by learning about trial and error, things don’t happen straight forward. A lot of people who are not, you know, they didn’t have PhDs and they made these great things. People will feel like, Oh, I can wrap my hands around that because this person did that too, this person looks like me. This person has my background. Maybe they’re from where I am: a new way to recreate a connection to science by, by giving people new myths.
HEFFNER: What do you hope that they will carry forward with those new myths in terms of inventions that will help improve society going forward?
RAMIREZ: Well, I don’t want them to focus so much on the inventions. I want them to feel A that they can create too. I want them to feel that they can innovate too. And I want them to feel like they can ask questions because the things that are coming at us in the future and currently with AI and driverless cars, I want them to feel like they can ask questions because I want “The Alchemy of Us” to be a gymnasium, if you will. Her are some old inventions that may seem mundane, may not seem the same, may seem pretty ordinary, but look at how they had consequences that were unintended. If these things can happen with simple objects, well let’s explore what’s happening now and let’s start asking questions.
So I’m really treating the book as a way to exercise the mindset that we need for the future.
HEFFNER: What do you think that that mindset ought to be?
RAMIREZ: You’re asking questions, ask a lot of questions and not, and not stopping until you’re satisfied with whatever people are asking or whatever people are telling you. If, if they’re saying, okay, these are driverless cars, instead of getting saying, Oh, that’s really great, you know, how do I buy one and get caught up with, okay, it’s going to be in this color and it’s going to do that. Say, okay, what decisions are being made when you make these driverless cars? When the driverless car is going and there’s, it has potential to be in an accident, how is it deciding, how is its algorithm deciding where it should go? There are ethical questions that are going on that are in that algorithm. I want people to feel that they should be able to ask those questions and also be able to push back until, you know, people who are making these cars, we don’t want that. We don’t want you making these decisions for us.
HEFFNER: The problem now, as far as I can tell with some of the stories is that there isn’t enough of an ethical dimension to them. I mean historically there isn’t enough of a concern for posterity beyond the immediate invention and then often monetizing that invention.
RAMIREZ: Right. Right.
HEFFNER: So how can we believe in myths that haven’t produced the results that we’ve needed to date?
RAMIREZ: That’s a good question. That’s a good question. Now, one of the stories I do have, which is the story about Polaroid, where it is an ethical question. Polaroid, which was a beloved company in the sixties and seventies, created instant photography. And it still has that myth today because people really love Polaroid cameras today. People will try to buy the cameras. However, nobody really knows that these cameras were used as a tool of oppression in South Africa. They were part of the passbooks that black South Africans had to use, and it was a way to control their whereabouts in that country. That’s certainly ethical. And so the folks at Polaroid didn’t seem to be concerned about that. They definitely were monetizing it, but it wasn’t until a young African American chemist saw what was going on that she pushed back and started protesting and actually because of her efforts and a few other people were able to have them divest. So, not every story has that ethical dilemma. I didn’t want to be a complete downer because again, when you’re at the gym, you start off with small weights and then you work your way up to the larger weights. But there is a story where that goes straight to the ethical dimensions of technology.
HEFFNER: And this connects because often we’re talking about corporations and patents and the evolving definition of capitalism, the business forum that determined that shareholders are insufficient as a metric to understand advancements and that stakeholders are planet earth, society, financial and economic wellbeing and equity fundamentally. And I hope that your book can be part of that cultural change because there’s a lot of talk right now,
HEFFNER: But very little action. And even in the political sphere, which we highlight often on this program, you find expressions of equity and not deliverables of equity,
HEFFNER: And that’s the thing about inventions. They are so they at the outset, they deliver something and it’s either going to increase equity or not. And being purposeful about wanting to increase equity is something that I hope inventors of the future have in mind.
RAMIREZ: I think, I think that’s starting to happen. I think it’s on the small scale. Like even the materials that you select for whatever invention should be considered. If this material is very rare and it’s going to require that you have to remove mountains to get it, even though it’s the most attractive in terms of its properties from a materials point of view, that’s not the material we should be using. We should be using a material that’s more abundant. Sure it may not have the same level of properties as the other one, but it’s, it’s, it’s much more sustainable and it’s more friendly to the planet. People are starting to make those decisions. But it’s rare and I think, you know, maybe in the next iteration of “The Alchemy of Us” once people start learning about the importance of examining inventions, then we can start thinking about, okay, what are stories that we want to have going forward about how we choose the materials and what are the outcomes that we intend to have with these interventions.
HEFFNER: Fair enough, Ainissa, I have to ask you before we finish, what are some of the materials that are at risk of extinction right now? Because you are a materials expert, you should weigh in on this.
RAMIREZ: Extinction. There are materials that are, that have set up geopolitical storms
HEFFNER: That is often cited as the indicator or predictor of geopolitical conflict in this decade. What are the battles over materials going to look like?
RAMIREZ: Well your cell phone has a lot of them. The material that makes it vibrate: Tantalum the, the golden side the rare earths that are used for the screens, those are coming from countries that have tremendous conflict, well, some of the materials are coming from places that have tremendous conflict like the Congo, like the tantalum and the gold. The rare earths are coming from China. China has is the largest source. 97 percent of these materials come from them. We don’t recycle our cell phones; we keep them in a drawer. We give them to a younger brother. We should be sending them to some place where those materials can be recovered. So if we can do a better job of recycling the technologies that we really love, I think that would be a great mission for the following decade.
HEFFNER: Finally, what about just a shortage of materials? Are we at risk of any shortages? We hosted Katherine Eban last year, who talked about the small supply of generic antibiotics and our ill preparedness for a potential epidemic. So I’m just wondering in this year of 2020 and the decade to come, are you concerned about missing materials? We need these materials. We need to solve a problem when we don’t have them.
RAMIREZ: We’re running out of helium and for those who love to go to Thanksgiving Day parades, those balloons are filled with helium. We need helium for medical devices in order for you to use these special cameras called MRI so that we can look inside of your body. But we’re using them mostly for parties and for celebrations such as Thanksgiving, which is wonderful, but we need an alternative to have those things floating, and once helium leaves the system, it’s gone. So that is something that’s very important for us to think about.
HEFFNER: And any other examples?
RAMIREZ: Oh, that’s all I can think of.
HEFFNER: That’s the best. Ainissa, thank you for your time today.
RAMIREZ: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.