Spark

How the telegraph and the lightbulb can teach us to think critically about future inventions

In her new book, The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, materials scientist and author Ainissa Ramirez chronicles eight life-changing inventions, and the inventors behind them.
Materials scientist and author Ainissa Ramirez says learning how simple inventions like lightbulbs influenced human history can help us think more critically about future innovations. (David Becker/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

We should educate ourselves on the cultural and historical implications of inventions in order to be able to think critically about new technology, according to a materials scientist. 

Ainissa Ramirez says that many current public education programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) only focus on the fascinating trivia in those fields. "That doesn't get us to where we need, which is exercising that critical thinking muscle," she said. In addition to the fun facts, Ramirez says it's important to consider the ethics of new inventions.

Ramirez's own thinking about the subject has changed in the course of research for her new book, The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another. In it, the scientist chronicles eight life-changing inventions, such as the lightbulb and the telegraph, and the ways in which these inventions changed society.

"I wanted to give people an invitation to look at technology and to think about science. And I thought by looking at simple inventions, this might be a good way to introduce people to think a little bit more critically about the technologies in the future," she said. 

Ramirez shared some of the highlights from The Alchemy of Us with Spark host Nora Young. Here is part of their conversation. 

In the book, you talk about the invention of processes and technologies, but it's also about new materials, like the invention of high-quality glass for labware or steel for railroads. You're a materials scientist. What captivates you about the design of new materials in particular?

What I wanted to really do is give people an opportunity to know about this little-known field that I love.

The Alchemy of Us is an opportunity to see how stuff that we just don't really think much about, how it has impacted our lives. And the reason why I love materials science is because … in college, a professor said to me, "The reason why my sweater is blue, and the reason why we don't fall through the floor, and the reason why the lights work, it all has to do with the interaction of atoms. And if you can figure out how they do that, you can get them to do new things." 

For me, that was sort of like when you're in a movie and there's a zoom effect and you focus on the person's face. I wasn't even listening to him anymore, I was just looking around me, like, "This guy is telling me something that makes this whole, this puzzle piece, just completely fit." So what I'm trying to show people, maybe people will start to look at stuff around them in a different way. 

We talked about the impact of the technologies on the culture, and on how we interact with each other. But how do the personalities or the individual people involved, how do they shape what technologies get developed?

When you read books about technology, they really loft the person as a genius and they're just untouchable. There's really no difference between them and you — it's just that they were willing to spend a little bit more time or be a little bit more curious - and that's something we can all develop. 

I didn't want people to feel that science was not for them because you have to be a super genius to do it. We can't be Edison with all of his inventions. But you can be slightly curious — that's really the spark that I really wanted people to embrace.

In The Alchemy of Us, Ainissa Ramirez chronicles eight life-changing inventions, and the inventors behind them. (The MIT Press/Submitted)

One of the things you talk about in the book is unintended consequences of all the inventions - whether it's the ability to foresee all the good and bad things that come out of technology or also unintended consequences that have their roots in their inventors' biases. Can you talk a bit about that?

Unintended consequences is something I wanted to address because when you see a lot of books about technology, they're just love letters to technology. And that's fine; I love technology! But I don't think that is the full picture of how we should think about technology. 

Sometimes the invention can be used for uses we don't intend. And so we should be mindful of that, even when we're creating it, because maybe there's a tweak we can put in the creation to make sure it doesn't go that way, or not be so enamoured with it and not think that it might be put to negative uses. 

So what are the lessons for technologists and designers today, especially where internet technologies scale up so quickly?

First, you must have a diverse workforce working on this, because they might see different ways of solving the problems. 

When you build the technology, know that you have some internal biases built in it, because we're all human and we all do. 

And when you're testing it, you should have a large test base that you're implementing before you're sending it out into the market. 

If the historical record shows us, as you document in the book, that science, technology and culture are in this interdependent dance with each other, why do you think we still have this ideology that science and technology are these neutral things that happen outside of culture and don't have any kind of politics to them?

I have a PhD in materials science, and I didn't learn about the cultural aspects of my field until I started writing this book. And I did know a few things, but they were kind of the cool things that people would say at cocktail parties. But no one really delved into it. 

As you're taking classes in materials science, you should be taking an occasional class about how it molded history. Because if we have that kind of understanding, then we know all these things are interrelated, and when we move one thing, another thing changes. But more importantly, we can learn as citizens to be critical about technology, and not just fully embrace it, which is how we do things now. 

We should be asking the question, "Now that this is around, what's going to change?" And we may not be right, but we should be asking that question anyway. 

As we find ourselves moving through this public health crisis, why do you think this kind of public communication of science is so important?

My approach to thinking about STEM education has changed. I was, like many other people, trying to get people excited about STEM by showing demonstrations, and "isn't this a cool fact?" And I think that's part of the problem. 

So I'm very much a proponent for STEM education, but I'm actually starting to think that if we go too far to one end, just STEM education without the humanities and without the skills of thinking about philosophy and ethics, we're going to have a lot of embracing technology without considering the ramifications. 

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full conversation with Ainissa Ramirez by clicking the 'Listen' button at the top of the page.

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