How Materials Shaped Our Society

Science communicator Ainissa Ramirez inspires readers with profound stories from history about the materials that shaped ourselves and our world.

Did you know that activist Frederick Douglass was the most photographed man of the nineteenth century? He believed in the democratic power of the new technology to create lasting images of ordinary people. He also “let his portraits combat the stereotypical images of African Americans in the 1800s,” writes author Ainissa Ramirez in her recent book, The Alchemy of Us.

But Douglass discovered a problem with photography at the time. The chemicals used in film “were developed around perfecting the portrayal of white skin,” writes Ramirez, and “black faces became underexposed.” Their eyes and teeth were exaggerated by the film’s failure, transforming portraits into the very same damaging caricature Douglass and his colleagues were trying so hard to fight.

At the start of the Civil Right’s era, Kodak was the primary producer of color film. They didn’t listen to the complaints of black mothers who couldn’t photograph their children; but they did listen to the corporations that said they couldn’t adequately capture certain dark colored objects for their customers, Ramirez notes ironically. And so Kodak formulated new film that would better capture dark colors, creating the technology that would allow people of darker complexions to appear more clearly.

But the bias of film technology did not end there. Ramirez points to how American photography was used for “darker enterprises abroad”. She describes how in the 1970’s , two black employees of Polaroid discovered their employer was illicitly based in apartheid South Africa. It turned out that despite the United Nations’ warnings to corporations not to collaborate with the oppressive government there, Polaroid was secretly supplying the film technology to create “passbooks” that restricted and segregated black lives.

These two employees, Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams, created the “Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement” and worked with the Black Panthers to stop Polaroid from working with the government of South Africa. Seven years later, writes Ramirez, Polaroid finally withdrew: “Polaroid’s departure started the process of dismantling apartheid, like a flicked domino, and Nelson Mandela would come to the United States to thank the PRWM for preventing the further capture of black South Africans.”

This example is from one of my favorite chapters in Ramirez’s thrilling new book. She weaves history and science together to tell stories of developments in materials science that transformed society, but how people transformed these materials as well. Her writing is immersive, often reading like a novel with intimate dialogue between historical figures — many of whom readers may not have known existed, or may be surprised to learn a new fact about.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the comparisons and conclusions Ramirez draws in each chapter as she presents her thoroughly-researched stories are nothing short of brilliant. Although steeped in history, each chapter feels startlingly relevant to the issues our society faces in the present day. Culturally aware and constantly rooting for the marginalized, Ramirez’s book is the history lesson we desperately need — and an important Black voice in science communication today.

The seamless weaving Ramirez accomplishes as she introduces a technological feat and historical story is nothing short of inspiring. The example I gave above is just one of many stories of science shaping society (and marginalized people shaping science) that Ramirez explores. Her analyses of them are astute and intelligent. This is an impressive collection, and she presents it convincingly in a well-composed argument. It demands respect.

The Alchemy of Us is a book that belongs in high school classrooms and college curriculum right up beside copies of Angela Saini’s books Superior and Inferior. If you have enjoyed historical explorations of science, such as Deborah Blum’s The Poison Squad or Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer, this book will make an excellent addition to your shelf. Its focus on people of color is a welcome presence in the overwhelmingly white-authored genres of science and technology.

A thoroughly enjoyable read you’ll be reluctant to put down, and eager to share with friends.

Published by Sarah Olson Michel

Science writer and professional bookworm. Wrangling horses and microbes in the Pacific Northwest. Aspiring old cat lady. Genderqueer (she/they).

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