Author and Scientist Ainissa Ramirez: an Interview

Author and Scientist Ainissa Ramirez: an Interview

Q and A with a real, live Niels Bohr Library & Archives book researcher!

One of the most rewarding and exciting parts of working in a library and archives is interacting with the researchers who need our collections for their books, articles, documentaries, radio programs, theses, and other projects. We caught up with Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph.D., who explored our archival collections while researching and writing her new book, fresh off the press: The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, published April 7, 2020.

Ainissa Ramirez Credit: Bruce Fizzell

Ainissa Ramirez  Credit: Bruce Fizzell

Q: Please tell us a bit about your book.  What drew you to the topic?

The Alchemy of Us explores how technology shaped us. It discusses the creation of eight materials science inventions—from steel rails to silicon chips—and then shows how those inventions changed culture. For example, readers will learn about some of the key inventors of the computer’s silicon chips, where this invention allowed computers to think. But readers will also see how the proliferation of computers is changing human cognition. Humans invent things, but then those things re-invent us. This is the premise of my book.

As for what drew me to this topic, I always wanted to know more about materials science from a historical point of view.  When I was a materials science professor I occasionally used stories in my class to make lessons more engaging. This book is an exploration of materials science in context, but much more. I believe readers, students, scientists, and professors will enjoy learning about how our inventions fit in the larger cultural fabric. This book offers a bird’s eye view of the impact of materials, but also provides an occasion to think about the innovations on the horizon.

Q: How did you get into the history of science?  What has your career trajectory been like?

My first love was science, but I always enjoyed history. I had a very animated history teacher back in my all-girls Catholic high school in Jersey City, New Jersey. It wasn’t until many years later that I found a way to marry both.  

When I look back, I can see how this merger of science and history was brewing. When I was a young scientist at Bell Labs, I made sure I learned as much as I could about the important breakthroughs that took place there. I spoke to senior scientists, I visited old labs (like where the  transistor was created), and I looked at old technical papers and books. This exploration enriched my knowledge. I understood the science because of my doctorate from Stanford, but here at Bell Labs I was learning about the larger enterprise of science. 

Over the years, I collected these experiences and eventually found the time to write up what I learned. I also dug a bit deeper and explored how life was altered as a result of these inventions. Such topics are often left out of textbooks. My book, The Alchemy of Us, works in tandem with a textbook, by filling in the human gaps. A textbook is practical and discusses how to use a scientific principle; my book tells the backstory of how an innovation came to be and the following consequences.

Q: How did you go about researching for your book?  What was your starting point?

The book project started with a book proposal, which is a plan for what is going to be inside each of the chapters. But, the next step was to find all the material to fill those pages.

In writing this book, I used both sides of my brain. My science brain was on fire because the same way that I looked at data was applied to how I found things to write about. I had to scour many, many archives, papers, and books, looking for what I call a “gem,” that is, a little known fact, or person, or event, that I could use to make the topic come alive. For example, when I was writing about the well-covered topic of clocks, I needed to find a fresh take. One day, I found in an old book that there was a lady in London named Ruth Belville who sold time. She would visit various businesses and show her accurate watch in an age when acquiring the precise time was otherwise not easy.  For me, she was a way to explain the importance of timekeeping.

The creative part of my brain was on fire too, because I had to tell her story and illustrate how life was before and after the proliferation of clocks. Much like research papers I wrote in the past, I had to learn a lot about her to write as precisely as I could. Unlike my previous research papers, however, I could not use jargon, or the passive tense, or even think about using a formula.This book led to my own alchemy by instilling new skills in storytelling.  

Q: What led you to the Niels Bohr Library and Archives (NBLA)? What was your research experience like at NBLA?

In my book, The Alchemy of Us, I discuss the development of the silicon chip and highlight one of its inventors, Gordon Teal. While reading a book about the transistor called Crystal Fire, I saw that its authors had acquired materials from the Niels Bohr Library and Archives (NBLA). When I searched the NBLA website, I was so happy when I found that the authors had not only pointed me in the right direction, but had donated their research materials, too. Within the Crystal Fire files was a transcript of an interview with Gordon Teal. This was a remarkable find! With this transcript, which was straightforward to acquire, I was able to tell Gordon Teal’s full story.  My book benefited greatly from these archival resources.

Q: Please tell us about how you became interested in Gordon Teal and the birth of the transistor.

I resonated with Gordon Teal because his contribution to the transistor was a breakthrough in materials science, which is my field of study. Teal made it possible for the transistor to go from a one-off experiment to a production-level device. He created a way to make semiconductor materials—the heart of the transistor—free from defects, which would vary the behavior of one transistor to another. However, Gordon Teal is largely overshadowed by the inventors of the transistor—Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain. I wanted to bring Teal out of the shadows—as well as materials science—and bring him to center stage. In a lot of ways, Teal represents materials science in general, undergirding society but largely overlooked.  My book was about bringing attention to both Teal and materials science.

Portrait of Gordon Teal. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

Portrait of Gordon Teal. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

Q: Are there other libraries/archives that were important in your research for the book?

I visited a lot of archives: from one-room historical societies in Connecticut to huge halls like the Library of Congress in D.C. I also traveled to England to see the birthplace of penicillin in London as well as read the papers of J. J. Thompson in Cambridge. It is important to visit the location where things happen so that you can “feel” the space. Also, it is important to go to archives because whatever you are looking for is not on Google. Archives don’t often scan their materials.* It is important that a researcher turns every page in a collection, as the consummate biographer Robert Caro says, because sometimes you might find something on a small scrap of paper that will send your project in a different direction. Such serendipity happened to me a number of times in the archives.**

Q: Do you have any particular habits while you’re researching and writing, such as a certain time of day that you enjoy writing, music that you listen to, a certain food or drink, a lucky pencil, cell phone set to buzzing or silent?

When I was writing, I used an old Mac, which had an ancient operating system that had difficulty reaching the web. This prevented me from going down a Google rabbit hole and forced me to write. I preferred quiet spaces and my cellphone was always on vibrate. If I had a tough time writing, I would set a timer on my computer for 20 minutes. I could always convince myself to write for that long. If I didn’t notice the timer, all the better.

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I wrote my notes in a fancy notebook, which forced me to be extra neat, since my penmanship is not the greatest. I learned to appreciate index cards, too. They keep key facts and are easier to organize than a computer file. My method is very much a study of old tech. This was what worked for me. Everyone has to find a process that works best for them.

Q: What is the editing process like for you?

I always listen to what I wrote, that is, I either read it aloud or had the computer read it to me. This practice allows me to see if I dropped any words, which I customarily do. But, it also helped to make sure what I wrote sounded appealing, that there is some musicality to it. I’ve been told that the role of a sentence is to make a reader want to read the next sentence. One way to ensure this is to make certain that the sentence carries the reader along to the next sentence using some mild form of rhythm. Of course, the information in the sentence is important, but how it sounds is important, too. 

After I wrote something that wasn’t too embarrassing, I usually submitted it to my monthly writing group. (I recommend writing groups highly!) From their feedback, I can see what worked or not. I can see if I was being unclear, even when I was convinced what I wrote was obvious.  Sometimes I learned that parts I loved just needed to be deleted. Deleting something precious wasn’t always pleasant, but I’ve learned that everything that is written has to serve the reader’s understanding no matter how beautiful a passage might seem. If what you wrote doesn’t work, it has to go. It’s that simple!

Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph.D. is a science evangelist who is passionate about getting the general public excited about science. Before taking on the call to improve the public’s understanding of science, she was an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science at Yale University. She now focuses her energies on making science fun - check out her TED talk! In her newest book, The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another she examines eight inventions and reveals how they shaped the human experience. You can follow Dr. Ramirez on Twitter: @ainissaramirez

*Editor’s note: Read NBLA's take on scanning here 

** Editor’s note:  We followed up with Dr. Ramirez and asked what other archives and libraries she used in her research. She consulted the following institutions: Niels Bohr Library & Archives, Science History Institute, New Jersey Historical Society, IEEE Historical, The Texas Collections at Baylor University, Rakow Research Library at the Corning Museum of Glass, AT&T Archives and History Center, The Henry Ford Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture-Manuscripts (NYPL), New York Public Library Archives and Rare Books Division, Computer Museum Archives, Library of Congress, The British Library, Yale University Archives, The Historic New Orleans Collection’s William Research Center, Stanford University Archives, Baker Library of Harvard Business School, Chicago History Museum Archives, Royal Society Library, Cambridge University Library, New York Historical Society, The Bancroft Library (UC-Berkeley), Schott Archives (Germany), IBM Archives

-Q&A organized by Corinne Mona, Assistant Librarian

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