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Watch: Scientist Ainissa Ramirez on How Materials Shape Us

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On April 22 the Kluge Center released a Kluge Book Conversation with materials scientist and writer Ainissa Ramirez, author of “The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another.” In it, Ramirez examines eight inventions that introduced major changes to the way people live. The Kluge Center’s Dan Turello interviewed Ramirez on her work considering the impact of technological change, as well as on her mission to encourage a more inclusive vision of science. Watch the full event here.

Materials science, Ramirez said, is a “little-known field, but it’s really important, because most of the technologies around us are made of materials. And someone worked really hard to make those materials work. But it really gets overshadowed.” It took her a while to figure out how to discuss the topic in the way that would capture the attention of non-scientists, she said.

Inspiration came, Ramirez said, as she was taking a glassblowing class and accidentally dropped molten glass on the floor. “And this is actually really bad,” she said, “because glass is hot enough to burn paper. It can burn a hole in your shoe.” The instructor was able to salvage the situation by picking up the glass with heat-resistant gloves, but the incident had changed Ramirez’s outlook. She was happy to be alive and without injury, after starting the class in a bad mood, and that got her thinking about the way that the glass had shaped her, as she was trying to shape it. “I said, ‘I wonder how other materials in history have shaped society,’ and so that was the birth of the book.”

Rather than discussing “fact after fact after fact,” about materials, Ramirez wanted to tell stories about people and their relationships with these materials. “I think that stories are stickier,” she said,” you can feel more connected to the material, and I can share with you these inventions that maybe you haven’t even heard of.”

One of those human stories is that of Ruth Bellville. “She lived in the in the 1800s and in the 1900s, and she lived in England, and she had a very unusual job: She sold time,” Ramirez said. Bellville would go to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, the home of Greenwich Mean Time, and record the official time on her pocket watch, which she nicknamed Arnold. Then, Bellville would go to businesses where knowing the correct time was important, like train stations, newspapers, and factories, and make her living selling it to them. Ramirez uses this story to consider how the relationship between people and time has changed with technologies like the pocket watch, and how this further affected an activity as fundamental as the need to sleep.

Watch the full event now to learn more about just how differently humans slept before the creation of artificial light and widely-available clocks.

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