Skip to main content

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.

Hardback:     
Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why.The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work.Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He’…