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The Alchemy of Us - Ainissa Ramirez ****

Materials science is one of the hardest topics to make interesting, probably only beaten in the potential dullness stakes by geology, but Ainissa Ramirez achieves the near-impossible of making the subject genuinely engaging, essentially by hardly covering materials science at all, but rather telling stories of people and their inventions with a materials science context. This is the kind of book academic publishers (and even more so academic authors) rarely achieve - lyrical and quirky, jumping around rather than linear: it's got a lot going for it.

Ramirez picks out eight topics: metal springs and crystals (for timekeeping), steel (for rails), telegraph wires, photographic materials, carbon filaments (for lighting), magnetic data storage, scientific glassware and switches plus silicon for computing. Of themselves, nothing particularly new and exciting - but what's great is the way that she headlines with excellent stories, some of which I've never come across. So, for example, the metal springs chapter begins with the story Ruth Belville who used to carry Greenwich time around London on a chronometer, while the photography section combines a very familiar topic for me - Eadweard Muybridge - with stories I've never come across, such as the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement.

The writing style can be a little flowery for me sometimes, but it's always interesting. From a UK perspective, the book has a very US orientation (it could almost be the alchemy of US) - for example, Ramirez refers to 'the difference in pronunciation of aluminum [sic], where a Union Jack accent will generate Old Glory chuckles.' This isn't a pronunciation difference - the US spells aluminium wrong, according to the international chemistry body. Similarly, for example, we only get the US version of the invention of the lightbulb (no mention that Edison had to accept that Swann got there first) and in the Muybridge story, Stanford comes across as a beneficial patron, rather than someone who tried to rip Muybridge off, making him seen like a hired help, and nearly ruined his career.

One last moan - there's a very distorted version of the history of Christmas music where we are told the traditional of carolling was a response to factories being shut down for Christmas, where in reality it goes back hundreds of years further (and don't get me started on calling Jingle Bells, which wasn't even a Christmas song originally, a carol).

However, these complaints are small fry - they don't take away from the fact that this is a fascinating book that deserves to be widely read.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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