Interrogating and Shaping the World Through Science

Interrogating and Shaping the World Through Science

Ainissa Ramirez [6.25.20]

What I noticed over the years is that people were starting to see science as entertainment and not as a tool or a lens to understand the world. The thing that scientists do is ask great questions. We need people who can interrogate and probe the world so they can develop their muscle of being critical thinkers. I saw that missing. I thought that I was becoming part of the problem of just showing science's entertainment with great demonstrations. I was hooking them, but I wasn't doing the next step, which is to say, “This is the enterprise of science; it's a great way to understand the world, and with it you can shape the world.” 

I've spent a lot of my energy recently thinking about how to get science to resonate with people, to make people who usually feel excluded feel included. I thought one of the best ways to do that was with stories. I like to tell a lot of stories and share the impact of materials. The reason I've taken this approach is that there are many books about technology and science that profile information and lather people with lots of details. But what I've learned in my journey is that stories are stickier. They allow people to be part of the journey, and then you just pepper in the science. You don't have to wallop people with science.

AINISSA RAMIREZ is a materials scientist and science communicator. She is the author, most recently, of The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One AnotherAinissa Ramirez's Edge Bio Page


I'm a material scientist, and I have been for a long time. I've loved science since I was a very young girl. One of the things that turned me on to science was a television program called 3-2-1 Contact. On that show, there was a repeating segment with an African-American girl solving problems with her friends. When I saw her, I saw my reflection. I understand now as an adult why that passion for science, that seed, had to be embedded in me early and deeply because my road to becoming a scientist was very bumpy.

Although I was one of the top students in my high school, then went on to Brown to study material science, and then to get my doctorate at Stanford—the whole time, I didn't see my reflection. I saw people who were equally as passionate about science, but something was missing in my journey.

After I graduated from Brown, I made a promise to myself that I was going to make that journey through science easier for others. I knew in my journey as a scientist that I was going to make other people feel included in this world of science. C.P. Snow talks about the two cultures—I love that book. You learn a little bit about the need for a bridge between two different communities, but there's another set of people who would also like to be in that conversation, who want to feel included in the sciences or in the world of the mind. I'm very interested in reaching out to people who may have been or felt excluded while taking science, or they had a bad experience, or the way that science is presented is not interesting or resonates with them. I've spent a lot of my energy trying to get people more involved in the science enterprise. In this journey of trying to make people feel included in science, the way that I went about it has evolved.

I, like many scientists, did outreach where I would present different videos or different demonstrations specifically about a material. I'm very fortunate to be in material science because we have some of the best science demonstrations out there. We have metals that will change shape when you heat them, materials that when you warm them up, they generate electricity. We have a whole range of cool demonstrations, and people love these things. In fact, when I was a professor at Yale, I had a program for kids called Science Saturdays, where I would do these demonstrations and also have lectures by professors.

What I noticed over the years is that people were starting to see science as entertainment and not as a tool or a lens to understand the world. The thing that scientists do is ask great questions. We need people who can interrogate and probe the world so they can develop their muscle of being critical thinkers. I saw that missing. I thought that I was becoming part of the problem of just showing science's entertainment with great demonstrations. I was hooking them, but I wasn't doing the next step, which is to say, “This is the enterprise of science; it's a great way to understand the world, and with it you can shape the world.”

I've spent a lot of my energy recently thinking about how to get science to resonate with people, to make people who usually feel excluded feel included. I thought one of the best ways to do that was with stories. I like to tell a lot of stories and share the impact of materials. The reason I've taken this approach is that there are many books about technology and science that profile information and lather people with lots of details. But what I've learned in my journey is that stories are stickier. They allow people to be part of the journey, and then you just pepper in the science. You don't have to wallop people with science.

In my evolution of trying to make people feel like science is for them, I've moved away from just profiling materials and showing demonstrations to putting them in a historical context by showing little known characters so that people can resonate with these characters, maybe see their reflection and also feel more connected to the world. I do this not because I'm solely in the business of uncovering these people, but once people feel connected to science this way, then we have what we need, which is for them to feel more engaged so they can ask questions about the future, ask about technologies that are pervading our lives in all different ways and think critically about them.

Currently, we're largely overwhelmed by our technologies. If you don't have a science background, you don't even feel like you have the skillset to push back and ask questions about them. But by telling stories of little known inventors and of technologies that are quite old and simple, such as the telegraph and the light bulb, people will see that if those simple things can change our lives, then these larger questions about things like artificial intelligence and applications such as driverless cars will certainly change our lives too. If people feel comfortable asking questions about simple technologies, I liken it to a gymnasium where they're exercising that critical thinking muscle with smaller weights. And if they continue, they'll be able to ask harder questions about the niche technologies that will shape our future.

The question that's on my mind is how do we make people feel more included in science, and how do we prepare them to ask good questions about the future?

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Working on a recent project, I learned about the importance of time and how it has shaped culture. Many people of course will know that because of the clock, we became more obsessed with time—we had a desire to be punctual. One of the stories that I learned about and was attracted to was the story of Ruth Belville, from the 19th century, who is known as the Greenwich Time Lady.

She had an unusual job. She was in the business of selling time. She would wake up early in her home in Maidenhead, which is thirty miles outside of London, make her way over to London, and then to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, which is where the precise time was. The whole time, she was carrying with her a pocket watch, which she had nicknamed Arnold. She would give her watch, Arnold, to the attendant, and the attendant would look at its time and compare it to their master clock. Then they would give her a certificate noting the difference between its time and her watch's time. Then she'd make her way down the hill and over to London, to different businesses that needed to know the time—businesses like banks, factories, newspapers, and pubs (which needed to know the time because they couldn't sell alcohol after set hours).

I found Ruth Belville to be absolutely fascinating; she seemed like a character right out of a book written by Dickens, but she was true. As a person who is trying to find new ways for people to connect with science, she was also a great device. Instead of just telling people that as a society we became more obsessed with time, I can tell the story of Ruth Belville, who had a business selling time. She provided a service for a need, which is another way to show that time became something that we were very keen on having or knowing.

What's funny is that her family had been in this business of selling time for over a century. Her mother did this work (she had about a hundred customers), her father started this business (he had about 200 customers). Towards the end of her career, Ruth had about fifty customers. Why was there a limitation in the number of customers? Well, it's because other technologies became folded into the world that diminished the number of customers she had. The time-providing services, such as the telegraph and radio, were also providing ways for people to get the time, so it didn't make sense for many businesses to have a subscription. While Ruth's business was contracted because of these other technologies, she still had customers who valued her because she also provided a human touch. See, Ruth was a very charming person, and as she walked around London, she would also talk to many businesses. She would get the word on the street about what was going on, so not only did she provide the time, but she would also provide news.

That's an important lesson, because even though she had an old technology of carrying a watch, there's more to technology than just being faster, better, stronger; there's the humanity as well. That’s what Ruth Belville represents. Eventually she retired, and she donated her watch to a London museum. You can actually see it in the Science Museum in London, on the second floor. When I saw it, I stood there for about twenty minutes in awe of Arnold. She passed away in 1943, and that was the end of the time distribution service provided by foot.

I've been thinking hard about how to express to people around me how important time keeping was to society. Time is very nebulous. If you read books about it, it will range in topics from the mechanics of a clock to the more esoteric physics of Einstein's theories. I was looking for a way to explain time to people in a way that I don't have to show them a mechanical clock, or I don't have to explain Einstein's theories. One of the ways that I thought was a great way to demonstrate this was through music. When you listen to music, your sense of time changes—not with music such as classical music, but music such as jazz. Jazz breaks all the rules. Sometimes you play a little faster, and sometimes you play a little slower. It ends up that your brain keeps time by physical cues. When you're listening to music such as jazz, you lose your sense of time. That's what I’m trying to impress upon people when I say that "we are the time we keep." Although we make these very beautiful watches with great precision, and some of them are quite expensive, our brains don't keep time by seconds; they keep time by the physical cues that are around us and by the shape of our memories.

When I say shape of our memories, think of it this way: Our brain has a hard disc, and as we live our lives, information is stored on that hard disc. When we're experiencing terror, for example, a second hard disc is activated and more information gets stored. Let's say that we were in a car accident. We start remembering information like the expression on the other person's face, how things are crumbling, and the sounds of that moment we're in the middle of the crash. It seems like forever. All the information that is stored in your brain recalls that information. And because there's so much information stored, it senses that event as a very long event. There's a difference between a clock and our body's clock, and sometimes they're aligned and sometimes they're not in sync. We should honor that as a society and not try to make ourselves clocks. We're not mechanical; we're humans, and at the end of the day, we should honor how our bodies operate.

One of the things that's been very interesting to me as a scientist is this narrative that we use: "I create this. Period." I've been thinking a little bit about this, and that period needs to be changed to a comma. So it would be, "I created this, and then this recreated me in some way." We're in a dance with the tools we make and the technologies we create. This is something we need to share with our younger generations, because we can't just think that what we do is isolated from the world, from history. Everything is connected, and it's that complexity that makes things fascinating.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this in materials. When I share with students the impact of materials, I say that sometimes there are unintended consequences, sometimes there are surprises, sometimes technology can go awry. As for surprises, what I like to explore is copper and how it was used in copper communication cables for the telegraph.

The telegraph, as many know, was created by Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse was a painter. He may seem like an unlikely person to create a telegraph, but the telegraph came from tragedy. You see, he was painting one of the best commissions of his life. He knew that his career was about to be launched. He's doing this work in Washington DC, and he's writing a letter home to New Haven expressing to his wife all the wonderful things that he's experiencing. He ends it with, "I long to hear from you." He knows that it's going to take about two weeks before he hears back because it takes about five days to get to New Haven and then five days back. About three days later, he gets a letter from his father, also in New Haven. He says that Samuel's wife had died. As you can imagine, he was very heartbroken. It made sense that he would want to be the person to create an instant way to communicate, so he made the telegraph. When he was starting to make his telegraph, he worked with his assistant, Alfred Vail. They had devised a set of dots and dashes, a Morse code if you will, to transmit information. Each letter of the alphabet would be converted to a range of dots and dashes, and then the person on the other end would receive those dots and dashes and convert them to letters of the alphabet.

Morse and Vail were of the tradition of long letters, so Vail would write a very long letter and Morse would have to translate all those dots and dashes. Morse was getting a little annoyed, so in one letter he wrote to Vail, when they were working in separate locations, he told him to “condense his language.” What he was telling him was to remove words that don't add to the meaning of the message, because translating something like dots and dashes into the word "the" is really a pain. So he told him to remove the words "the" and "a," and start to use a compression of words. For example, instead of "understand," they'd use "un," and instead of "be," they'd use the letter "b." The suggestion was to create a whole shorthand, sort of like we do today with our technologies. So that was Morse telling Vail to condense his language.

The telegraph became part of the American fabric, with telegraph offices all over the world. They would tell their customers that they were welcome to use the system, but they had to be brief. The reason why was because the telegraph was fantastic at sending information across the country, but it had a shortcoming in that it could not handle many messages at one time. These telegraph offices wanted to keep the lines free for other customers. So people had to send messages, but they had to be brief. These offices encouraged this because they had a flat rate for ten words, and then each word was one tenth that rate. People wanted to economize and send their messages cheaply, so they would send very short messages.

The telegraph soon became part of newspapers, and newspaper editors would tell their reporters to be succinct for the same reason. Again, the telegraph was a wonderful way to send news across the country, but it still had that limitation. Now, there was one reporter who loved this style of short, declarative sentences that was the newspaper style, and that was the author Ernest Hemingway. So here's a surprise: Morse had the intention of creating a fast way to communication that was forged from his own heartbreak, and in the process, he developed an invention that shaped the way Americans speak. We create tools, but those tools in turn shape us. The desire for instant communication shaped the thing that it was containing, and that is language. That's one example I like to share with people.

Another example that I like to share is unintended consequences that happen as a result of material inventions. A good case study for that is the light bulb. When you look at American textbooks, you will see the inventor is Thomas Edison. We all know that that is not true. There are many other inventors that predate his work, but he created a way to light our world using an incandescent bulb. In his technology, he had a small piece of metal or a small thread that he heated up resistively. It warmed up, and as a result, it glowed. Once he created his light bulb, we soon had an overabundance of light. How has that shaped us? Well, it has shaped the human world significantly.

Edison did not know this at the time, but it ends up that humans have two modes. We have a daytime mode and we have a nighttime mode. In our daytime mode, we have an increase in temperature, metabolism, and the amount of growth hormone in our bodies. In our nighttime mode, all those values decrease. How our body knows what mode to be in, daytime or nighttime, has to do with the lights. It ends up that in our eye, in the retina, there's a special photoreceptor that we've just learned about in the last thirty years. It doesn't contribute to vision, rather, it is essentially a detector to detect blue light. When it detects blue light, it sends a message to another part of the brain to shut off melatonin, which is a chemical compound that tells all the cells in our bodies to be in nighttime mode. So when it is shut off, we enter into daytime mode.

When Edison was alive, people had different types of light. In fact, the generation before him lived by sunlight and by candlelight. Sunlight has a lot of blue light, so our ancestors were in daytime mode. And as the sun set, they would use candlelight. That type of light is redder, so they would be in nighttime mode. But you and I live under artificial lights most of the time, and they generate a lot of blue light. As a result of that, we are in daytime mode most of the time until we go to sleep. What are the repercussions of that? Well, it ends up that if our bodies are swimming in growth hormone, we will respond to that overstimulation and our cells will grow.

One scientist at the National Institutes of Health told me that we are taller than our ancestors. Now, there are many contributing factors to that, including better nutrition, cleaner water, better medicines, less war, but another factor is artificial lights. If your cells are swimming in growth hormone, they're going to respond, and they may respond in ways we don't want. There have been studies done on animals where they've been subjected to different types of artificial light, resulting in increased obesity, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer. These studies can't be done on humans because that's unethical. But we have seen that there is a population of people who have an increase in, again, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and some forms of cancer, and it has to do with the fact that when they work, they work at night. So surgeons and security guards that work under artificial lights, that is, people who work at times other than nine to five, are being impacted by the lights. That's an example of an unintended consequence when inventors such as Edison and all the others were creating their incandescent lights. They had the intention to push back the darkness, which was an admirable feat, but we now have to deal with the unintended consequence as a result of their invention. What we know now is that there is a linkage between our bodies and the light. In order to live in a healthy way with the lights, what we can do is change our lights to emulate what our ancestors used to do.

Our ancestors used to live with the sun, which was blue light, and they used to live in the evenings with the redder light of candlelight. In our modern day, we can get blue light from sunlight, but we can also get it from blue LEDs and compact fluorescent bulbs. And during the course of the day, as the sun sets, we need to change to a redder light so that we can enter into nighttime mode. We also need to change our devices and our computers so that they are in nighttime mode, because they generate a lot of blue light. So here's this case of how we create a technology and then technology can in turn shape us.

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If I were to think about people I admire in the sciences, people I want to emulate, it's a lot of scientists who have made that bridge over into writing. And I can see that now. I couldn't see that at the time, but there were a few books that were very precious to me. One author who was very precious to me was Isaac Asimov. I loved what he did in terms of how he explained things. I had a very thick book called Understanding Physics. Why would a child want a book called Understanding Physics? He made it so relatable. It was one of those occasions where I thought to myself, you can do that? You can explain science this clearly? Because science usually was a little bit more cloudy in the description. So I really loved Asimov.

It's one thing to know your field really well. I worked at Bell Laboratories, and across the hall from me was a Nobel laureate, so I admire people like that. I want to hang out with them. But I also admire people who can explain it so that someone who's a non-scientist can get it. That's also genius. Those are the people that I admire. I definitely loved Asimov. I got to meet Alan Lightman. When I read Einstein's Dreams in '92 or '93, it was one of those books where I put it aside and said, “I didn't know you could do that. I'm going to learn as much as I can so I can get to that level, to explain my field of material science so that people will have this kind of feeling.” It was just amazing. It's a very thin book, but it's beautiful. And it's also beautifully written. I knew that I also wanted to write beautifully. I made an attempt to write something similar. I can't say that it worked out, but again, he inspired me because it was a paradigm shift.

There are so many students I talk to who say we scientists don't write very well. First of all, that's not something we should honor. We should fix that if that's the truth. There are so many examples of people who do write well. When I wrote my journal papers, I made them as beautiful as possible, because you have to economize your words. You don't have very much space and each sentence has to do things. As a writer, it's the same thing. Your sentences have to do things. In a science paper, you need to pack as much information as possible, but when you're writing a book or any other endeavor, each sentence has to make you want to read the next sentence; it has to do something. I push back when people say scientists aren't good writers. Scientists need to fix that. But I've been spoiled because I've interfaced with a lot of scientists who are great writers.

Of course, as a materials scientist, I loved Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks. But one of the writers who really moved me was Primo Levi and his book The Periodic Table. When I read it, and I was in my twenties, I was so moved by it, not only because the writing is beautiful and it's talking about very hard things, but it's so brilliant in comparing something that we've been looking at for so long as a scientist—the periodic table—and seeing that it's an analogy for life. I can't get enough of that book.

As I mentioned, I found my love for science at a very early age. I was unstoppable, and I was very passionate about it. I actually enlisted my grandmother to do science experiments with me. So you have to create that bubble, because, sure, the world may not be pro science, and there may be a lot of people who aren't like you or aren't thinking about science, but if you have a space where you can do science and thrive, that's what you need. I would tell parents that if they have a child who loves science, and if the parent is not comfortable with science, the first thing they have to do is figure out how to remove that fear of science, because your child is an antenna and will pick it up.

One way to do that is the next time something breaks, clear the dining room table, put a towel on top, take that thing apart and take the posture, "I don't know, but let's find out together," because that is what scientists do. You can't be in the posture of being the sage on the stage. Those days are gone, and they probably really didn't exist. We all can be in the posture where we're asking questions. That's what we need in the 21st century more than ever. So if we can have children asking questions and they don't stop asking questions, we've prepared them as well as we can to succeed in the 21st century. Nurture their curiosity. Instead of asking what they learned that day, ask them what questions they asked that day. That focuses on the desire to be curious, instead of on the content. No one is ever going to learn everything, but the asking of the question is the act that we want to encourage.

I was just very fortunate. As a kid, I didn't have wealthy parents, but they knew that I loved science. When I took things apart, they knew that it wasn't coming from a place where I was trying to be mischievous. I was just curious. They've always nurtured that curiosity. If there was a museum to go to, or if there was an event going on that might be science related, we went. You just need to create that science bubble. I feel very fortunate that my parents understood and supported that.