41 pages 1 hour read

Ainissa Ramirez

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

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another is a 2020 popular science book by Ainissa Ramirez. A materials scientist and science communicator, Ramirez holds a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering from Stanford University. The book’s title refers to the two-way relationship between materials and humans. Using eight inventions as case studies, Ramirez demonstrates how innovations in materials impacted society. Ramirez writes in simple, engaging prose, making challenging topics accessible to a wide range of readers.

The book received the AAAS/Subaru SBF Prize in 2021 for Young Adult Science Book and captured the Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Gold Medal in 2020 for Adult Non-Fiction. In addition, the book was named one of Smithsonian Magazine's Ten Best Science Books of 2020 and was a finalist for the 41st Los Angeles Times Book Awards, Science and Technology category.

This guide refers to the 2020 edition published by MIT Press.


The Alchemy of Us comprises an introduction, eight chapters, and an epilogue. The introduction describes Ramirez’s childhood interest in the sciences and her science coursework in college—much of which she found dry and disappointing. A professor’s explanation of how atoms interact to impact all aspects of the world reignited Ramirez’s interest in the sciences and led her to pursue a career as a materials scientist. The underlying concept of the book—that materials shape people as much as people shape materials—came to Ramirez during a glassblowing class.

Chapter 1, “Interact,” focuses on timekeeping improvements and their impact on society. High-quality metal and, later, quartz allowed for increasingly accurate watches and clocks. These improvements coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the requirement that workers start and end work at specific times. Rigid timekeeping spilled over into other aspects of life, dictating when people slept and ate. However, clock time is at odds with the body’s biological clock. Therefore, although precise timekeeping devices improved worker productivity, they also led to an increase in sleeping disorders.

Chapter 2, “Connect,” discusses the properties of steel, its use in railway lines, and the effect of these advances on commerce. A versatile material, steel is both durable and flexible. Its use in railways allowed Americans to travel long distances with greater ease and promoted commerce by allowing stores to receive regular shipments rather than stockpiling goods.

Chapter 3, “Convey,” posits a connection between the invention of the telegraph and the development of American English. The telegraph required short, simple sentences that could only be sent one at a time. This format affected the news—which produced short, concise reports—and news writers of the time, including Ernest Hemingway.

Chapter 4, “Capture,” focuses on advances in photography and the racial bias and racism associated with it. Kodak formulated its color film for white skin. Consequently, Black people appeared featureless in early colored pictures. Similarly, Polaroid went into business with the apartheid government of South Africa, which wanted a system that produced two color pictures in 60 seconds to create passbooks that controlled the movement of 15 million Black citizens.

Chapter 5, “See,” explores electric lighting and its effects on health. Too much artificial light at night impacts the body’s circadian rhythm—the natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, which repeats every 24 hours. The body grows during the day and repairs itself at night. Too much artificial light at night hinders this process and can lead to various ailments, including cancer.

Chapter 6, “Share,” is about the phonograph and its role in sharing information. The phonograph allowed us to record sound and replay it on records, which magnetic cassette tapes later replaced. Later in the 20th century, digitization changed the relationship between people and data. Records and cassettes let users record data in the form of music. By contrast, streaming companies turn users into data by gathering information about what they listen too, when, and how often—and about where the listener is and who is around them.

Chapter 7, “Discover,” delves into developments in scientific glassware and their impact on medicine and technology. Glass is an ancient material, but its use in scientific fields is relatively new. German chemists first experimented with strong glass in the 19th century. The American company Corning Glass Works built on these advances in the 20th century, creating highly resistant glass that was appropriate for baking and laboratory work.

Chapter 8, “Think,” discusses computers and their effect on human brain structure. Inventers modeled early computers on the human brain by using silicon transistors and binary code to send and process information, calculate, and perform logical operations. However, the human brain has now adapted to computers. Computers inundate our brains with information and weaken our ability to think deeply. In addition, the internet has taken over roles that our brains used to play, such as memory. Without training, the human brain will lose its ability to understand, create, and think.

The Epilogue focuses on Ramirez’s inclusive approach to the sciences and her efforts to humanize inventors. Two quotes by the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison informed Ramirez’s commitment to inclusivity.