Wulff Lecture: Ainissa Ramirez, "The Alchemy of Us"

Wulff Lecture: Ainissa Ramirez,

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Hello and welcome. I'm Jeff Grossman, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. And it's my pleasure to welcome you to the 2020 John Wulff Lecture.

John Wulff was a professor in the Department of Metallurgy, as it was called back then, in 1937. And he was a professor from 1937 until his retirement in 1973. And among his accomplishments over this long and illustrious career, those in teaching really, really stand out, and not just teaching, but inspiring young students to take up the study of material science and engineering.

In 1968, Professor Wulff developed MIT's 3091 Introduction to Solid State Chemistry, which is still a very popular freshman chemistry option. He was a riveting lecturer, as you can see in this picture. And he truly loved to teach.

In every lecture and every recitation was a passionate performance, but also a passionate engagement with the students. And when I see a picture like this with him with that passion and those crystal structures in front of him, it just brings warmth to my heart. So the inaugural John Wulff Lecture was delivered by Professor Wulff himself in 1977. And ever since then, the aim of the Wulff Lecture has been to present an engaging lecture about material science and engineering directed to MIT undergraduates, particularly directed to freshmen, and to serve to give them a glimpse into the world of material science and engineering as a field, of the professional opportunities it presents to young scientists and engineers, and of the individual accomplishments and personalities of one of the field's leaders. So just for those of you who aren't in the field of material science and engineering, what we are is we are atom builders.

We're builders of solid matter. And we look at all the different levels of what it takes to build matter and what the impact of that building is. So for example, we use any and all tools, from physics, to chemistry, to biology to assemble our atoms into molecules, and the molecules into solids, or the atoms into solids directly. We use processing tools. We make structures that we want, that we control at scales all the way from the atom all the way up to the macro scale. And we build those atoms, and molecules, and solids into structures that we want in order to give us properties that we want.

And those properties can be exceptional. They can be structural. They can be chemical, electronic, magnetic, photonic, and on, and on. Why do we do that? Because we want to make an impact, because, in society, we know that materials are important to every single industry. And they bring value to humankind and to some of the largest challenges that we face.

And today, the globe faces tremendous challenges. And what's so exciting about being atom builders in materials science and engineering is that so many of those challenges are bottlenecked by the choice of a different material, by the choice of a more efficient material, or a material that gives you a different property, or a material that costs less, but we need to make new materials to solve so many of the world's challenges. So with that introduction, we are so excited to welcome today Ainissa Ramirez as the 2020 Wulff lecturer this afternoon. Dr. Ramirez is an award-winning scientist. She's a science communicator who is passionate about getting the general public excited about science.

Her undergraduate degree is from Brown University. And she has a doctorate in materials science and engineering from Stanford. She's worked as a scientist at Bell Labs and is a faculty member at Yale University.

And she spent time here at MIT as an MLK Visiting Professor twice, in 2006 and in 2009. Dr. Ramirez has written for The Atlantic, for Forbes, for Time Magazine, among many others. And she's explained science headlines on PBS, CNN, NPR, and ESPN, to name a few. She's served as a science advisor to museums, the American Film Institute, and WGBH NOVA. And in many ways, her book, The Alchemy of Us, is the perfect Wulff Lecture for 2020.

In this book, Dr. Ramirez explores many different inventions that have shaped the world we live in, which, in the context of COVID, is changing and challenging, but the role of materials remains paramount. Dr. Ramirez has researched the development of and the materials behind communication cables, film, light bulbs, hard drives, and much, much more, while telling wonderful little-known stories of the inventors and the effects of the technology.

So please join me in welcoming Dr. Ramirez to our first virtual Wulff Lecture. Thank you so much. Thank you so much. I am so delighted to be here.

I'm so honored for the opportunity to give the Wulff Lecture. And I've been so looking forward to sharing with you my new book, The Alchemy of Us, How Humans and Matter Transform One Another, which, incidentally, is published by the MIT Press. Now, this book explores how technology has shaped us. Now, what I would like to do is just propose a roadmap. I want to tell you a little bit about my vantage, the lens that I took at looking at technology. I then want to tell you a little bit about the book's origin.

How did I come up with the idea? And then the majority of the time, well be talking about how materials, how technology shaped us. And I want to show you specifically how there are sometimes surprises, how there are sometimes unintended consequences, and then how sometimes technology can go awry. Ooh, I can't wait to share that with you. OK, so what's my vantage? Well, I'm a material scientist.

Where I live, most people don't know what that is. I liken material science to my home state of New Jersey, because both material science and New Jersey have been overshadowed by their neighbors. You see, for New Jersey, those neighbors are Philadelphia and New York. And for material science, that's chemistry and physics. See, material science is interested in how atoms bond, the structure. That's the chemistry part.

It's also interested in how matter behaves in different situations. That's the physics part, the properties. Now, I have to be honest with you. I never heard about material science growing up.

And the first time I did, I wasn't even interested in it. Well, why? Well, it was a prerequisite course back in my college days. And I had taken a series of prerequisite courses. And most of them were not, how shall I say, fascinating? But the first day I sat in my material science class, the professor completely blew me away.

He said the reason why we don't fall through the floor, and the reason why my sweater is blue, and the reason why the lights work all has to do with the interaction of atoms. And if you can understand how they do that, you can get them to do new things. Now, when he said that, I stopped listening to him, which I don't recommend. You should always listen to your professor, he or she.

They may have something important to say. But I temporarily stopped listening to him, because I had a fresh perspective. I was like, he was absolutely right. My shoes, my shoes were comfortable because the molecules in the rubber are kind of shaped like springs which brought a comfort to my feet. And the pencil in my hand, I was able to make a mark because the carbon atoms in the graphite were sliding past each other. And my glasses, my glasses allowed my eyes to see because the glass bent light to my distant retinas.

This guy was telling me something that made the whole world make sense to me. And it was that moment that I said, I think I'm going to study material science. Now, since I was young, I knew I wanted to be a scientist.

I was a curious little girl. I asked a lot of questions. I took a lot of things-- lots of things apart.

I didn't always put them back together. It wasn't because I was being malicious. I was just curious. Now, what's funny is that what actually put me on the path to becoming a scientist was actually television. I had a lot of favorite television programs that I really loved during the '70s and '80s.

Those programs were The Bionic Woman-- I loved her. The Six Million Dollar Man, oh I loved that show. I actually had the doll.

Star Trek with Spock, I totally loved that show. I had those dolls. In fact, I wish I had those dolls today. But a show that really put me on the path to becoming a material scientist or becoming a scientist was a program called 3-2-1 Contact. On it, there was a repeating segment of kids solving problems. And one of those kids was an African-American girl.

And when I saw her, I saw my reflection. I said, hey, I want to do that. And so she became the north star. And with some hard work, perseverance, and navigating that bumpy road, I eventually became the material scientist that you see in front of you today. Now, I've had a fun time doing material science in my career. Let me just run down some of the playlist, some of the things I was able to do.

Well, I was able to invent a solder that bonds to glass. Oh, that was a lot of fun. I spent a couple of years looking at shape memory alloys, alloys made out of nickel and titanium that undergo a phase transformation when you heat them.

So when you heat them they change their shape. That was a lot of fun to work on. I also worked on micro machines, small, small devices that you can hardly see that move and actuate. Oh, that was a lot of fun too. But I have to say that, for all of my efforts in working in material science, I was actually starting to feel a little bit incomplete. Why? Well, I had a lot of knowledge in my head, but I didn't feel like I had a whole lot of skill in my hands.

So a couple of years ago, I signed up for some glass blowing classes. There is a studio not far from where I live a couple of cities over. And so I signed up for some classes. Little did I know that that glass-blowing class was actually going to put me on this path to this book.

Let me share with you how. Now, when I went to go visit the glass-blowing studio, the instructor was fantastic. He did a demonstration.

He stopped what he was doing. He went over to the area where there was hot, molten glass. He tugged on it about a half dozen times. And what he made was a galloping horse. Not all the feet were on the ground. And the mane was flowing in the air like a shampoo commercial.

I said, this guy is amazing. I want to be next to him. Now, while I was walking around with him, he said, hey, if you see glass drips on the floor, don't step on them, because even if you think they're cool, if they're hot, they're hot enough to burn a hole in your shoe. I said, burn a hole in my shoe? That doesn't sound too safe. Well, despite my trepidation, I decided to sign up for some classes.

And I knew that I had to be careful. I had to be extra careful, not only because of the warning that he had given me, but because, well, real talk, I'm a little bit on the clumsy side. So I knew that I had to be cautious, because if I didn't pay attention, there was a good chance that I would get burned. So when I went to my glass-blowing class and it was my turn to work with the glass, I was very, very cautious.

I would get my pipe. And I would stick it just gingerly into that vat of hot, molten glass. And I would pull out just a little bit.

And I would blow a small bubble. And then I would make a small vase, and something that size. And I made lots and lots of small vases like that. And you can actually see one of them behind me. Now, I made so many of these vases that I would give them to friends.

And they were so nice, because they would accept them, even though they had lots of flaws. They were not symmetric. Some of them were tilted. And some of them had colors in them. And I still don't know how those colors got in there.

Now, there was one friend who was particularly kind to me. And she says, Ainissa, this glass piece is amazing. That wasn't true. She's like, you should make something bigger.

I said, no. I'm never going to make anything bigger. Do you know how hard it is to make that and not get burned? Look, I'm just going to stick to small vases.

But I have to admit something, my friends. There was one day that I went to my glass-bowling class where I didn't care to be so safe. You see, that morning, there were layoffs. People got fired. And so by the afternoon, there was lots of hugging and crying. And so by that evening, I was in a very, very raw state.

So when I went to my glass-blowing class, I took a very different approach. I put all my frustration onto that glass. So when it was my turn to work with the glass, I got my pipe. And I stuck it deep into that vat of glass. Oh, I was angry. And I took out a lot, nearly maxing out my muscles.

And then I blew a huge bubble. And then I did things I had never done before. I swung the glass. And when I did that, it made it longer.

And I spun the glass. And when I did that, it made it wider. Now, when I came back to myself, I noticed that this glass piece was one of the best glass pieces I had ever made in my entire glass-blowing career. And I wasn't the only one who had noticed.

Some of my classmates, they came up to me. And they're like, Ainissa, that piece, it's huge. It's a big vase. You're making a big vase.

I said, I know. They're like, it's beautiful. I'm like, I can't believe it.

Now, I had one more step before I was done. All I had to do was put the piece which is on the end of my pipe into the furnace for a short amount of time for a flash of heat. And then I could remove it off the pipe and then put it over to the area where it cooled.

But as I put it into the furnace to cool, I'm still talking to my friend. I'm losing track of time. When I remember what's going on, I said, oh, gosh. I pull it out. This piece is incandescent orange.

It is extremely hot. Not only that, what was hanging on my pipe like this is now hanging off my pipe like this. Oops, I'm in trouble. Now, I had a little bit of glass-blowing knowledge. I said, all I need to do is rotate this pipe 180 degrees. And what will happen is that the glass piece will come down because of gravity.

And it will level itself. All will be right in the world. And things will be great. But because it was so hot, it just went down to its new lower side. So I rotated, and it went down to its new lower side. So I rotated, and it went down to its new lower side.

So I rotated, and it went down to its new lower side. So I rotated, and then it just fell to the ground, boom, twisted right off the pipe. There is my beautiful piece, no longer beautiful, now on the floor. Now, my instructor had been watching what was going on. So he rushed over. He had heat-resistant gloves.

He picked up the piece, reattached it to my pipe, put it into the furnace, flattened-- rounded the flattened side with a wet wood block. He opened up the seal lips because they had collapsed onto themselves. Then he gave it over to me. And this was kind of beyond my skill, so I just did what I should've done before, which is put it into their furnace for that flash of heat, removed it from my pipe, and then put it over to the area where it cooled.

Well, now it's cooling. And I'm calming down. I'm starting to think.

I'm starting to have some deep thoughts. And I'm talking to myself. I do that when I'm thinking deeply, saying, Ainissa, you know, that glass piece and I were in a dance.

Well, what do you mean we were in a dance? Look, I shaped it. Well, of course you shaped it. It's a glass-blowing glass. No, hear me out. It shaped me. What do you mean it shaped me or you? What do you mean? Well, look.

I was in a bad mood when I came to this class. And now I'm in a pretty good mood. In fact, I'm pretty happy to be alive.

I wonder how materials and humans have been shaping each other over the last couple of centuries. Boom, that was the birth of the book. That was the birth of The Alchemy of Us. Now, in order to explore how material has shaped us over the last few centuries, I as a material scientist, I had to completely change gears.

I had to completely change the way that I did material science. See, I used to work in a laboratory. And I worked with clean-room suits, had special equipment, looking at-- using high-tech equipment to discover new materials. I liken myself to a periscope, where I was pointing in the direction that I was headed.

I can see just a little further out. I was focused on the future. But now, in order to explain or to explore how materials got us to this point, that periscope had to be pointed behind me.

And also I had to change locations. I was no longer in clean-room laboratories. I was now in libraries.

And before, where I was looking at new tech, I was now looking at old tech of books, and old papers, and archives trying to figure out how those materials got us to here. But again, I was still on the same hunt for something new. Let me share with you what an excellent day looks like at the Archives. I'm not going to share with you what an ordinary day looks like or a bad day, because they kind of look the same, but let me share with you an excellent day looks like. Now, I was working on the first chapter of the book. The first chapter of the book, Interact, is about time pieces, and clocks, and how they shaped us.

And I had already found the materials that were involved. First, there were crucible steel, which was needed for springs that were made, that was put inside of watches. And later we used quartz. Quartz as a piezoelectric material. It interfaces between electricity and motion. And it was able to provide the oscillations or the tics and tocs for clocks later on.

I also found the key inventors. Benjamin Huntsman back in England created crucible steel. And as for the quartz clock, well, that was made by a little-known inventor who didn't even have a Wikipedia page at the time named Warren Marrison. He was an inventor, a scientist over at Bell Laboratories. So I was pretty pleased with that.

I didn't know about these things. And I said, OK, that's definitely going in the book. I also found how clocks and time pieces shaped culture in ways that I had never thought of before. They actually changed how we sleep. I know that sounds crazy. Before the Industrial Revolution, we used to sleep differently.

We would go to bed around 9 or 10 o'clock, sleep for about three and a half hours, and then wake up on purpose for about an hour or so, do things around the house, sew, clean, go visit our neighbors because they're up too. After that hour, we go back to sleep for another three and a half hours. These two segments of sleep were called first and second sleep. And everybody slept that way. So what changed? Well, it was a one-two punch of technology.

The first was artificial light. Artificial light allowed us to go to bed later. So one of those segments of sleep became shorter.

The other technology was the clock. We had to get up early to get to the factory. So that second segment of sleep became shorter. Soon it didn't make sense to sleep for a short amount of time, wake up, and then go to sleep for a short amount of time, so these segments of sleep became consolidated. And it resembles the way that we sleep today. In fact, some historians believe that the best way to sleep is actually in these two doses, as I just mentioned.

So I discovered that. And I was like, great. Clocks changed how we sleep. That's awesome. But I was still on the hunt to show how we became so obsessed with time. And I hadn't had much luck.

So I'm in the library. And I'm looking at this stack of books, reading them one by one. I told you this wouldn't be exciting, but I'll get to the important part.

Now, there was one book in particular. When I opened it up, about halfway through, about midway through the page, I see a sentence. It says, in the 19th century, there was a lady in England who sold time. I said, what? And I said it loudly like that. And I'm in a library. I'm in a very posh library.

And everyone around lifts their heads and looks around to see who made that noise. And because I didn't want them to think it was me, I mimicked the same behavior. And then I take it up a notch, shh, be quiet.

When everything settles down, I look at that sentence again. And I said, what? What do you mean, sentence? This is what I found out. I found out, in the 19th century, there was a woman named Ruth Belville. And she had an extraordinary job. She sold time.

She would wake up early in her home in Maidenhead, which is about 30 miles outside of London, make her way over to London, and then make her way over to Greenwich, and then walk about very, very steep hill to the Royal Observatory. Now, this is the home of GMT, Greenwich Mean Time. Now, the whole time she had in her handbag a pocket watch like this, which she had nicknamed Arnold.

She gave Arnold to the attendant. The attendant compared the watch, the time that Arnold had to their main clock, and then gave her a certificate noting the difference. And then she'd make her way down the hill, cross the Thames, to go over to London to various businesses that needed to know the time. Her first stop was a London docks. The London docks was a harbor full of hundreds and hundreds of ships. And navigators needed to know the precise time.

It was a matter of life or death, because they used the precise time in order determine longitude. See, they use the position of the sun and the time that was in London to determine where they were on the map so they could determine if they were east, where they were, east or west. So that was her first set of customers. And then she'd make her way over to banks, and factories. And there were a few millionaires who liked having GMT in their clock, in their homes as well. Now, for this extraordinary line of business, she was called the Greenwich Time Lady.

Her father started this work. Her mother continued this work. And Ruth finished the family business. In fact, they had been selling time for 100 years. Now, when I discovered Ruth, I was like, this is amazing.

And I would tell all my friends. Did you know there was a lady who sold time? Did you know there was a lady who sold time? And over time, they would say, yes, because you told us the last time. That's how excited I was. But I have to say that I actually had another set of emotions too. I was initially glad to discover Ruth.

But over time, I started to get a little sad and then a little mad. How is it that a woman who is so fascinating, how is it that she got erased or reduced to one sentence in a book? That didn't seem right to me. Now, I found her to be tremendously exciting because I use her as a fantastic device to show how important timekeeping was, so much so that a person had a business based on selling it.

And she's the first person that you meet. But when I discovered Ruth and had those other sets of emotions, she actually shaped the book. Just like that glass-blowing experiment told me to look at how materials and humans had shaped us, Ruth told me it was important to examine little-known inventors, little-known contributors to history and in history who had contributed to science and technology. And so she shaped the book. OK, so we've looked at my vantage, material science. We've looked at the origin story of the book.

Let's take a deep dive now. And let's look at how technology has shaped us. And what I want to examine, again, are surprises, unintended consequences, and how technology can go awry.

Let's start with a surprise. Well, a good case study for that is the telegraph. Now, if you go into-- if you look at some books and you look up the telegraph, the inventor that you're going to see is Samuel FB Morse. And if you continue to look on, you will see that he was a painter. And you may say to yourself, this seems like an unlikely candidate for someone to build such an important invention. That's what I thought.

However, if you read on, you will see that the telegraph was actually forged through tragedy. See, Samuel Morse had one of the biggest art commissions of his life. He had to paint the portrait of a very famous French commander in Washington DC. And he lived in New Haven, Connecticut, which is a couple of miles away, so he traveled to Washington DC. And he was going to be there for some time.

And while he's there, he's having a great time. He's going to parties. He gets to meet the president.

He goes to the White House. And he's writing letters home telling his wife and his children all about the fantastic things he's experiencing. There is one letter that he signs off and he says, I long to hear from you. He sends that letter. Now, he knows it's going to take some time before he hears back, because letters traveled by stagecoach.

So it's going to take a couple of days to get to New Haven. It's going to take a couple of days for his wife to write. And then it's going to take a couple of days for him to get a response, so at minimum, two weeks, more likely, three weeks before he hears back. So he sends that letter. A couple of days later, he gets a letter from New Haven.

It's from his father. His father lives in New Haven. Now, he knows that that letter has nothing to do with the letter that he just wrote. He also knows that his father is quite stern.

So when he reads the letter and it starts off with, my affectionately beloved son, he's like, what's up, continues to read the letter. Ends up, his wife had died. Yeah, sad-- the day that he wrote, I long to hear from you, she had already passed. So he rushes to New Haven. And when he gets there, she's already been buried. So Morse may not seem like a likely candidate as a painter to invent something so important, but he surely would have loved to have a rapid way to communicate, which is what was the impetus for him to go on and create his telegraph.

Now, what he created was precisely known as an electromagnetic telegraph. And in material science, we know all about how this thing was made. It's relying on copper wires, which are able to be conductive.

He uses short and long pulses in order to send information. And he uses batteries to provide those short and long pulses. Now, he's developing his telegraph. And he's working with an assistant Alfred Vail. Sometimes they're in the same location.

Sometimes they're not in the same location. And they're writing letters to each other talking about the experiments. And if you read the letters, they kind of go like, try this. Did this work? Did you understand this? Let's try this. Those are kind of how the dispatches are between them. But if you continue to read the letter, you find Morse becoming continually irate.

He had a little bit of a temper. In one letter he writes to Vail, he says, condense your language. That's my interpretation of what he's saying, anyway. But why was he saying that? Well, both Vail and Morse were of the tradition of writing letters by hand. And then they would translate those letters into Morse code, dots and dashes, short and long pulses of electricity. And then the person on the other end would receive those dots and dashes and then translate what the meaning of the message was.

So Morse was getting a little impatient, because he would get a message sort of like dash, four dots, dot, dot, dot, and then another dot, dot. And then he'd look at his handy-dandy Morse code. And he's see, oh, that's T. That's E. H, OK that's E, "the." That's a lot of work for a word that doesn't really do much, doesn't contribute much to the meaning.

So this is why he's getting irate with Vail. He's saying, condense your language. Don't use "the," use the letter T. Don't use "be," B-E, use the letter B. Don't even think about putting the word "understanding" in there.

Just use the letter U-N. And for "yes," use aye aye, two dots, two dots. See, Morse and Vail created a shorthand sort of like how we have today with Twitter and text messages.

And the reason why they did this is because, well, it just became so onerous to change those different-- to convert from those dots and dashes to words. Now, the telegraph took off. It became really, really popular in America. And anyone could send a message to any part of the country.

It was an amazing technology. However, if you went to a telegraph office, they were like, yeah, you can certainly use, this but we have one major rule. You have to be brief. Why is that? Well, as wonderful as this contraption was in its ability to send messages rapidly across the country, it had a limitation. It couldn't handle a lot of messages. The first telegraph could send one message one way and one message another way.

Thomas Edison came along and could send four messages one way in four messages another way, but it couldn't handle a lot of messages. And so the telegraph office told people to be brief so that they could keep the lines available for future customers. And they inspired this by a pricing structure. The first 10 words were a flat fee. And each additional word was 1/10 that fee. And people got the message.

They sent very, very short messages because of that. Now, the telegraph actually became very, very popular in newsrooms. And this was great. You can get news from all over the country. People really loved that.

You can be in California and hear what's going on in New Orleans or New York. It was fascinating. People really were excited about that.

And reporters were told by their editors, look, we love what you're writing, great copy, but you have to be succinct. Use short sentences. Why? Well again, it was because of the limitation of the telegraph. You couldn't send a lot of information. And so they wanted to make sure that the dispatches were as brief as possible. Now, there was one reporter who really loved this style of short, declarative sentences.

He went on to become a very famous author. You might have even read him. His name is Ernest Hemingway. His idea of writing with short, declarative sentences was forged by the newspaper, which was forged by the telegraph. So here we have a little bit of a surprise. The telegraph was designed to create a way for us to rapidly communicate, but along the way, it shaped language too.

Now, admittedly, there were other features and other factors that shaped American English. One was the desire for America to individuate itself from the UK. We both spoke the same mother tongue, and so we wanted to take a different approach to it. On one side of the pond they say "priv-acy," we say "pry-vacy." One side says "vayz," another says "vahz."

One side says "touch wood." We say "knock on wood." But another factor that shaped American English besides that cultural decision was the telegraph. So here is a surprise. That's one of the things that I feature in The Alchemy of Us.

OK, so we've seen a surprise. Let's look at an unintended consequence. And a good case study for that is actually the light bulb. Now, when you look at books about the light bulb, particularly those written by American authors, the person that you're going to see is Thomas Edison. And he gets showcased a lot in books and in movies.

And when you see him, he's often portrayed as this genius who comes up with this great idea. And he just has a spark of inspiration. Well, that's not exactly how that went exactly with the light bulb. In fact, he wasn't even thinking about working on the light bulb. It wasn't until he met a little-known inventor named William Wallace in Connecticut that he became inspired.

See, Wallace had created an early electric light that was an arc lamp. And arc lamps have been around in history since the late 1800s, but he created one of the first ones in the United States. And it was based on having two carbon blocks that were separated from each other.

They were both connected in a circuit. And when he turned on the generator, a bolt of lightning went in between those two blocks, creating a huge, bright light. And this is what Edison saw when he came to Connecticut. And he was so enamored with it.

He was like, wait a minute. I wasn't thinking about electric lights, but now I'm going to jump in, because this looks so exciting. But he was also enamored by what he didn't see. See, what Wallace had created was too bright for the home.

It was like being in a search light. You could turn on the light and you wouldn't be able to see anything because it was just too bright. So Edison said, I'm going to work on this. I'm going to work on this back in Menlo Park. And I'm going to take a different approach.

And so that's what he did. When he went back to Menlo Park to New Jersey, my home state, he decided to use an incandescent way to provide light. Now, this is just based on having a small wire underneath glass where air is sucked out. And what you do is you apply electricity through that wire. And it resistively heats so much so that it gets so hot that it starts to glow. This was going to be Edison's approach.

Now, he really had to focus on the materials. In fact, he was trying to figure out what was the best filament to glow the brightest. And he settled on platinum for a long, long time. And actually, from a material science point of view, that was actually a good thing. He was very good at material selection.

See, platinum has a higher melting point. And so that was good, because if you're going to have electricity going through this wire, you want it to be able to survive. And so platinum, that was a good choice, Edison. And Edison also selected platinum because it kind of kept to itself chemically. That is, if you have a wire that's glowing red hot underneath glass, and even though you've sucked most of the air out, there is still a little bit of oxygen in there. So if you have something that's really, really hot with oxygen, there is going to be a chemical reaction.

And if a chemical reaction occurs, you're going to form a soot on the surface. And that's going to dim the light. Well, platinum kind of keeps to itself. So that wasn't a problem.

So again, Edison did a good job in his material selections. But there is one thing that Edison overlooked, because he really worked hard to try and get platinum wires to glow brighter, and brighter, and brighter. And he couldn't. He just couldn't. And that's because he couldn't overcome a material property of platinum, meaning that it's conductive.

And what he needed was a material that was resistive. The way I think about it is, if I have a pipe and it's empty, water can flow through it quickly. But if I have a pipe and I put marbles through it, well, water will have a more difficult time going through it. That's what Edison needed. He needed a more resistive material so that it would eventually heat up and glow. Well, platinum did not do that.

So he eventually and reluctantly changed over to carbon, which is resistive. And he was able to create a light bulb that glowed very, very brightly. It glowed brightly. And there was one night where he had a bunch of light bulbs that he had put together.

And he wanted to see how well they could perform. And there was one bulb that was doing particularly well. It lasted for an hour. And then it lasted for two hours. And then it lasted for three hours.

And then eventually, it lasted for 40 hours before it went dim. And that, my friends, was the birth of the American light bulb. Now, in The Alchemy of Us, I talk about origin stories, as I just did.

But I also talk about what was the outcome of such inventions. Now that we have an abundance of light, how is it impacting the world? Well, in order to share with you how that happens, let me actually take you back just a few decades. What I'd like to do is take you back to my backyard when I was a kid back in New Jersey. Now, for any of you who have grown up on the East Coast, you know that there is a summertime tradition that happens as the sun sets. When I'm in my backyard, I'm on the hunt as the sun is setting. And I'm looking for little sparks of light.

As soon as I see one, I run to it with a glass jar that I've already prepared. And what I do is I capture that. And what those are, my friends, are fireflies. And fireflies are something that I love today. Now, I have fireflies in my backyard here in Connecticut.

And I've noticed that, over the last couple of years, that the number of fireflies has been decreasing. And so I asked an expert about that, because well, that's what I do. And here is what she said. She said, yes, they are decreasing. I said, well, why? Well, this is what she explained to me. She said that what was going on in my backyard was not as innocent as I thought.

What was going on in my backyard is that the fireflies are flashing to each other because they want to meet. And they want to find a mate. Let me explain it to you this way. If we have a female firefly sitting on a blade of grass, we have a male firefly flying about waist high. It's announcing himself. I'm a male.

I'm a Photinus greeni. I'm a male. I'm a Photinus greeni. If the female firefly looks up and she likes what she sees, she'll flash back, I like you. And the male firefly will drop like a rock over to her vicinity. And I'll just say, future fireflies.

That's all we have to say about that. But let's say, let's change the scenario a little bit. Let's add now a streetlight. OK, so we have the female firefly, male firefly flying about waist high. He's announcing himself again. I'm a male.

I'm a Photinus greeni. I'm a male. I'm a Photinus greeni. Female firefly looks up. She can't see him.

Why? Because that streetlight is so bright that it completely washes him out. So she doesn't flashback. And these lovers don't meet, no future fireflies.

Let's just do the scenario one more time. Female firefly on a blade of grass, male firefly flying about waist high-- again, he's announcing himself. I'm a male.

I'm a Photinus greeni. I'm a male. I'm a Photinus greeni. Female firefly looks up. She sees him, yes. Oh, but she doesn't like what she sees.

It's sad. You see, female fireflies like male fireflies with very, very bright lanterns. And this guy's lantern is not looking so bright with that streetlight way above him, so she doesn't flash back. See, bright lanterns tells her that he has good genes. No future fireflies.

Now, my friends, this is very, very sad situation. We humans have kind of messed up life for fireflies. But that's not the only species that's being impacted by the lights.

We are. A scientist explained this to me this way. He said, you can think of humans as two species.

We have two modes. We have a daytime mode. We have a nighttime mode. The daytime mode is our growth mode. We have an increased temperature, and metabolism, and a lot of growth hormones flowing through our bodies.

The nighttime mode, all those values decrease. You can think of it as our rest or repair mode. How our bodies know what mode to be in, daytime, nighttime, nighttime, daytime, has to do with the lights.

Now, in order to understand that, we have to actually think a little bit about our eye. Now, for those of you who've sat through biology classes, you know that light goes through the lens to the retina. That information goes down the optic nerve to the brain where it's reassembled as what we know as vision.

But what we have found out is that the eye, the eye had a secret function that we did not even know about. We thought everything was to know about the eye had been known for the last 150 years. Nope, nuh uh, the eye had a little secret. You see, on the retina is a photoreceptor. It doesn't contribute to vision, no.

You can think of it as a detector. It's on the hunt for blue light. And when it senses blue light, that information goes down the optic nerve to the brain to another part of the brain which stops secreting melatonin. Melatonin is a chemical compound that tells all of our cells to go into sleep mode. Time to go to sleep.

So when it is shut off, our body enters into daytime mode. So blue light, daytime mode. Now, when our ancestors were growing up when they were alive, they live by sunlight.

And then they lived by candlelight, or by the hearth, or by gaslight. The sun has a lot of blue light in it, so they were in daytime mode. Now, as the sun set, they exited daytime mode. And they started to enter into nighttime mode, because the light from candles is redder. So they were able to be in nighttime mode. But you and I, we live under electric lights all the time.

And most of them are very, very strong in the blue. So we're in that growth mode up until we go to sleep. Now, there are some health repercussions if our bodies are washed in growth hormone all the time. One researcher told me at the NIH that we are slightly taller than our ancestors. Now, I know you're enumerating why that is, of course, cleaner water, better nutrition, less war.

But another factor is the lights. So there is that. But there is some negative reasons too for-- or negative impacts of being surrounded by lights and having growth hormones going through our bodies. Researchers have done studies on animals.

And they've subjected them to various types of artificial light. And they have found that those that were subjected to the artificial light had an increase in risk for cardiovascular disease, some forms of cancer, and obesity. Now, we can't do those studies on humans. We don't do that.

We don't do that. But what we can do is we can look at what people do, where they live, how they get sick, and then make some correlations. And that's what epidemiologists have found.

And they have found that there is a population that has an increase in risk for certain types of ailments such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and sometimes of cancer. And it has to do with when they work. They work at night underneath the artificial lights. So security guards, and nurses, and surgeons all working underneath the lights have this increased risk. So here we have an unintended consequence.

Edison was on the mission to push back the darkness and to lengthen the day, but now we know that these lights have an impact on our health. So you may be asking, because this is the question I was asking, how do you live in a healthy way underneath the electric lights? Well, the prescription is actually very, very simple. We have to emulate what our ancestors used to do. In the mornings, we need to have blue light.

And during the course of the day, we need to shift to a redder light. So what I might suggest is, in the first thing in the morning, is try and get some sunlight. Go for a walk. Let that blue eye hit your eye and put you into that wonderful daytime growth mode. If you're unable to make it outside, well, then, blue LEDs and compact fluorescent bulbs, which are very rich in the blue, will put you into that wonderful daytime mode. Now, as the sun sets, you need to change your lights.

Dim all those blue lights and switch over to a redder light. So an incandescent bulb or a red LED will allow you to enter into that rest repair mode. Now, those are not the only things that we need to shift. We also need to shift our computers and our screens. They generate a lot of blue light, so we need to put them into nighttime mode so that we can go into nighttime mode.

Also our television screens, they generate a lot of light too. So another option is that you can actually put some shields over your eyes to block the blue. Now, there is some expensive versions, of course. But you can also go to the hardware store. Anything that blocks the blue will suffice. So here is an unintended consequence.

Again, we are on the-- Edison was on the hunt to give us more time for the day. But now we have to live-- we have to figure out how to live in a more healthy way underneath these lights. OK, so we looked at a surprise. We looked at an unintended consequence. The last case study that I would like to share with you is how technology can go awry.

And it can be a technology that we love. A good case study for that is photography. Now personally, I love photography. I have way too many cameras. My father had cameras.

My grandfather has cameras. In fact, my favorite camera was a camera that my grandfather used to own a long time ago. It was an instant camera made by Polaroid. It had that white, iconic frame.

Maybe you've seen these things like this. Now, what I learned while I was writing The Alchemy of Us is that, while I was standing in front of my grandfather's camera capturing many childhood memories such as the loss of my first tooth, the first day of school, and first communion, it ends up that there were people on the other side of the planet who were standing in front of a camera made by Polaroid who weren't too happy about it. Let me share with you the story of Caroline Hunter. Caroline Hunter was a 20-something year old chemist, African-American woman, working at the most-popular, most-loved company in America. And that was the Polaroid Corporation.

This is all happening in 1970. It was located right in Kendall Square, some place that you might be familiar with. And if you walk around, you might be able to see some old buildings with Polaroid on it. Now, Caroline was also working on the it product, which was the instant photograph, the instant camera.

And she was working on what was technically called goo. "Goo" is the scientific term for the material, the solvent that's located in this packet at the bottom that's squeezed out onto the film as it exits the camera. So she's working on the hottest project there is. Now, one day, she's going to lunch with her friend Ken Williams who is over in the Art Department.

And as they leave his office, they see on the bulletin board something that's very strange. It's a mockup for an identification card. Now, they know the person's face, because it's someone who's in the office, but the words are strange.

It says, department of the minds, Republic of South Africa. These two look at each other. And they're like, Republic of South Africa? What's Polaroid got to do with South Africa? See, they knew in 1970 that South Africa had an apartheid system. They also knew that the year before, the UN said that all companies, all countries should cease and desist from operating with South Africa. We should not be supporting that oppressive regime.

So when Caroline and Ken found this, they decided to go learn some more. They spent nights in the library. And this is what they found out. Every Black South African had to carry with them a passbook. A passbook was a 20-page document which told any person where this person could go, where they could not go. This is before GPS, and monitoring, and surveillance that we have today.

This was a simple way to do this. Now, at the heart of this passbook was a picture made by Polaroid. Caroline and Ken, they didn't think this was right, oh no. So Ken went to go talk to some folks at management.

He knew a lot of people over there. And at first they said, oh, we don't sell any cameras to South Africa. And then they said, well, if we sell cameras, it's not that many. But Caroline and Ken knew differently.

They had been researching for weeks. They also knew that this camera was portable. It didn't require a darkroom. And so it was easy to render the likeness of 15 million Black South Africans very quickly with just having a couple hundred cameras in the country. They didn't care for what the response was from their company. They didn't think that their work or their company should be buttressing such an oppressive regime.

So in an instant, they formed the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement. They wanted to spread the word and convince Polaroid to stop selling its cameras to this government and stop oppressing people. So how do you spread the word in an age before the internet, before Twitter? Well, they typed out newsletters. And they actually posted them on bulletin boards.

They put out flyers. They put them on cars. They had rallies to tell people about what was going on. They went on television to tell people what was going on too. It took seven years. And of course, they got fired.

But eventually, Polaroid stopped selling its technology to South Africa. And this was significant, because this was the pin that started to dismantle the apartheid system. See, Caroline and Ken knew that there is technology that you love, but you have to make sure that they're serving humanity best. And this is one of the lessons that we've learned in The Alchemy of Us. And I hope you'll take a look at that story, because it happened just in your own neighborhood. Well my friends, we've spent a lot of time talking about technology.

And I hope that you can see the importance of putting technology under the microscope. I also hope that you as future leaders, particularly in material science, that you see the importance of not only linking properties and structure, but also linking materials in society. We need people who think more broadly about technology, because as I say in The Alchemy of Us, such a thoughtful analysis of the impact of inventions benefits society, not just because it's an entertaining cerebral exercise, but because, when coupled with action and social change, it has the potential to help society transcend its condition and favorably further this alchemy of us.

Thank you so much for your attention. And I look forward to any of your questions. Well, big round of applause for Dr. Ramirez. Thank you so much. That was an amazing, amazing talk. And you're just truly such a gifted storyteller.

The way that you wrapped together so seamlessly the importance of material science and technology and how that weaves together with biology, people, society, humanity itself-- I'll never view fireflies, light bulbs, Morse code, photos, sleep, or time itself quite the same way. So thank you again. That was amazing.

I want to let the audience have time for questions. And I'd like to remind people who are tuning in via the webinar that there is a way to enter questions at the bottom of the screen. So you have to use the Slido platform that is at the bottom to enter any questions. And I'll start it out with a question of my own, which is, what advice would you give to sort of these young scientists and engineers maybe either to help them know how to share their passions with others and be storytellers, but also-- and make an impact on the world that way, or how they can follow some of the examples of some of the people that you talked about? Oh, that's a great question. Well, I definitely feel that it's our duty-- because we're so lucky, we get to do science. It's our duty to share that with the general public.

And there is so many ways that you can do that. Just make sure that it aligns with where you feel is your strength. So if you're really good at doing demonstrations, get a YouTube channel and put some demonstrations out there. People are going to love that.

If something goes on in the news and there is a nuance to it that you don't think people are getting, well, put that on Twitter or Facebook. There is so many ways that we can have an impact in bringing science to the general public. So find the way that works best for you. A lot of people have different levels of commitment, and different levels of skill, and comfortable level.

So find that. And as for me, I like engaging with the public. I am an introvert. It may not seem like it. So I just know that sometimes I have to be on.

And then when I'm done, I'm just going to spend some time by myself. So it's really about learning about your own style. So that's why I'm sharing that with you. That's great, thanks.

One of the questions that came in is actually a fairly simple one. How did the vase end up? Ah, the vase-- I have it. It's flat on one side. It's not beautiful at all.

But I have it, because that was the impetus for the book. So thanks for asking. Awesome. And then another one came in that says, as a fellow 3-2-1 Contact fan, I appreciated your comment about the role of representation in our television and your north star. I don't know if you want to say any more about that.

Well, I definitely find it to be very important to have a north star. I think we need more representation. People need to see the reflection. In the book, of course, a lot of the inventors are men of European descent. And so how was I going to make sure that people saw their reflection? Well, I dug really, really hard to find what made them human. Like, I found that the JJ Thompson, the inventor for the-- the discoverer of the electron, he was actually very, very clumsy.

If I had known that growing up, I would have wanted to put my hands around him. You know, I wanted to hug him, because he feels more relatable to me instead of this genius that just came up with this great idea. And as for my own path as an African-American woman in the sciences, reflections are very, very important. So I start off very-- very early, I had a reflection. I had some teachers. They didn't necessarily look like me, but they made me feel that science was for me.

And so my journey was sparked by teachers. And then it wasn't until years later that I saw scientists that look like myself. And that was at Bell Laboratories.

But I think all of us need to just relate to each other on a human level. And if you feel like you're the first, or only, or different, look out for your tribe. There are people who are out there. We have this wonderful thing called the internet which will help you find those people. When I was going through the process, the internet wasn't useful at the time.

So find your tribe. And that will motivate you to get through. That's great. Another question that came in is, what trends and new ideas in material science are you most excited about? Let's see. Well, I'm biased. I mean, there are some trends.

But I still love looking at simple processes. So I worked a lot with shape-memory alloys. I like doing discoveries of older materials and making them do new things.

So I talked about solder. is I think there's really great opportunities in nanotechnology and metamaterials. And those are hot, hot topics. But that's not where my sweet spot is. I actually like looking at older technologies and see how they can be reframed in new ways.

So if you want to know about the hotter topics, certainly talk to the folks over in course three. They are working on those hotter topics. Or pick up-- go to the library and look at Science Magazine. You'll see what the hot topics are right there. But unfortunately, that's not the thing that I focus on all the time.

That's great. I have to say, I love the old topics too. I love those stories.

And I also want to give Thompson a hug, I think. So another question came in. It's amazing how much of science is full of social constructs.

Do you thinks it's important to include this aspect of science in our science education? Absolutely. I think we need to do a better job of introductory courses. And I think we need to put science in a context too, because when we remove it from the world and when we focus on geniuses, you're going to exclude a lot of people. And they're going to feel like, science is not for me.

I don't need to know it. And that's kind of the problem that we're in. That's the world that we're in right now. So we need to work hard to tell more stories, make them inclusive, put science in a context, which is my attempt to do in The Alchemy of Us. So we need more of that. I love nerding out on science by itself, but I'm already a scientist.

Other people don't know about nuance and how things are related to a larger structure. And so we must work hard, even though we may not have been trained to do that. We must work hard to tell those stories and put it into context. And actually, related to that-- or, there was two questions related to that. One is, who do you look to for inspiration today? And another is, what stories did you learn that you couldn't include in the book? Like, is there a sequel coming? Well, my-- I have a couple of north stars now.

I love Alan Lightman. He's affiliated with MIT. I love his prose. I love how he makes physics, really hard physics understandable, because it's almost lyrical. It's almost like a poem. I want to get to that level at one point.

As for stories that didn't make it, well, there is a lot. The book was twice as long. Where do I start? But I did learn about-- there was this baseball team in the National Negro League. And it was during the Depression. And they were about to collapse.

So that would have been the end of them. And they needed to figure out how to stay afloat. Well, their manager figured out this portable lighting system so that they could have nighttime games so that people who had some money during the Depression could watch those games at night. And he made it portable so he can go to all these different cities and get tickets from all these different places.

So that guy's name is Wilkie. It was The Monarchs that was the baseball team. I love that story, but it didn't fit the theme that I was thinking of for The Alchemy of Us, so it didn't make the book. So there are many of those kinds of stories. And maybe there will be an Alchemy of Us Two.

But right now I'm working on children's books. That's awesome. Let's see. So I guess what one question is, I love how you ended-- at the end there, you talked about unintended consequences of technology. And I'm wondering if you have any advice from your work and your research about how we might go to avoid, or minimize at least, the impact, the negative unintended consequences. Well, that's a great question.

I think just even considering how our invention might be used in the world is important. I remember when I was in the laboratory, I was just so geek out and so excited. Oh, this works. And can I write this up? And can I get into Science? And I never did that exercise of like, OK, now that this is in the world, how is this going to impact the world? If we do consider that, maybe there is some kind of tweak that we can make in the technology so that it isn't used for nefarious reasons. We won't get everything, because there are people with too much time who think about bad things to do with everything. But it is something that we should consider, if there is some small modification or some way that we can encapsulate the impact of something.

But we don't really-- when I was at Yale, I didn't even teach that. So that's the reason why I wrote The Alchemy of Us, because I think that that was one of the lessons that should have been included, that we build technology. We use and apply science, as we know, in engineering.

But the last thing is, like, make sure that this is serving humanity well. Well, that is a fantastic, I think, way to end. I love serving humanity well.

I can't think of a better closing line. But I want to just thank you again so much for-- Thank you. --this wonderful and captivating presentation. And for those of you who are watching, if you want to find the book, it's at MIT Press. It's The Alchemy of Us.

And that's what Dr. Ramirez told us a little bit about today. It kept me on the edge of my seat. And I just, I thank you again so much for being here with us today. Thank you. Thank you.

Everybody, stay safe.

2021-04-27 07:09

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