The Alchemy of Us Book Summary - The Alchemy of Us Book explained in key points
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The Alchemy of Us summary

Ainissa Ramirez

How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another

4.3 (74 ratings)
23 mins

Brief summary

The Alchemy of Us by Ainissa Ramirez tells the stories of how everyday inventions such as clocks, telegraph wires, and color dyes have transformed the way we live and connect with each other. It explores the relationship between technology and society, and shows how each innovation has redefined who we are.

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    The Alchemy of Us
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    Improved timekeeping technology deepened our obsession with time.

    Elizabeth Ruth Naomi Belville made her living by selling a rather odd commodity. Every week, she’d travel to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. There, she’d set her pocket watch – it was nicknamed “Arnold” and had once belonged to the Duke of Sussex – to Greenwich Mean Time. Once this had been done, she’d visit the dwellings of the people subscribed to her service.

    What was that service? Allowing them to set their clocks to Arnold. This is how Belville made her living for almost 50 years, from 1892 until her death in 1940: she sold the time. People called her the Greenwich Time Lady.

    The key message here is: Improved timekeeping technology deepened our obsession with time.

    Belville was successful because Arnold was accurate – very accurate. Made of the finest materials, Arnold kept the time better than other clocks, even though it’d been made in the eighteenth century. But in the twentieth century, even Arnold’s accuracy was surpassed.

    In 1939, a new kind of clock was displayed in the window of a shop on Fulton Street, in Manhattan, New York. Soon enough, hundreds of passersby were using this extremely accurate clock to set their own timepieces.

    The clock was so fantastically accurate because it contained a special kind of crystal: quartz. Quartz is special because, when exposed to an electrical current, it begins to vibrate. In 1927, a Canadian scientist named Warren Marrison figured out how to use this quality to improve the precision of clocks. He fashioned a small, thin ring out of quartz. Then, using electrical signals, he caused the ring to vibrate at a steady rate of 100,000 vibrations per second. This mechanism could be used to measure time with stunning precision.

    Improved time-keeping methods only served to reinforce certain time-related ideologies. Puritan settlers, who arrived in America in the seventeenth century, strongly believed that time should not be wasted. This view was perpetuated by Benjamin Franklin’s capitalist notion that “time is money.” Throughout the nineteenth century, as the United States industrialized and the factory became the main driver of the economy, timekeeping and time management assumed even greater importance.

    Factories relied on clocks to tell workers when to start working and when to stop. It wasn’t long before the rhythm of the factory pervaded all of modern life – dictating when people awoke, when they ate, and when they slept.

    This certainly improved productivity. But it’s been argued that this rhythm, which is still with us today, is also at the root of many sleeping disorders.

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    What is The Alchemy of Us about?

    The Alchemy of Us (2020) offers a history of some of the most important technologies ever developed, from clocks to glass to the steel rails used to make railway tracks. It explains how these technologies were created and explores how they shaped human culture.

    The Alchemy of Us Review

    The Alchemy of Us (2020) is a captivating exploration of how everyday inventions have shaped our lives. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • Packed with fascinating stories about the inventors and inventions that have transformed our world, it offers a fresh perspective on the objects we use every day.
    • By highlighting the unexpected consequences of these inventions, the book challenges our understanding of progress and prompts critical thinking about technological advancements.
    • Through its engaging narrative and thought-provoking content, it manages to make science and history exciting, ensuring that readers will not find it boring.

    Best quote from The Alchemy of Us

    As technologies become more pervasive in our lives, whom they were built for and optimized for will be an important discussion.

    —Ainissa Ramirez
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    Who should read The Alchemy of Us?

    • People curious about the innovations that paved the way for computers
    • Those who want to know how technology has changed our brains and our bodies
    • History buffs interested in the great inventions of modern times

    About the Author

    Ainissa Ramirez is a materials scientist and science communicator. She has written for Time, Scientific American, the American Scientist, and Forbes. She makes regular appearances on PBS's SciTech Now.

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    The Alchemy of Us FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Alchemy of Us?

    The main message of The Alchemy of Us is how technology has shaped our lives and society.

    How long does it take to read The Alchemy of Us?

    The reading time for The Alchemy of Us varies depending on the reader's speed, but it typically takes several hours. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is The Alchemy of Us a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Alchemy of Us is a fascinating read that explores the impact of inventions on our world. It offers insights and context that make it worth reading.

    Who is the author of The Alchemy of Us?

    The author of The Alchemy of Us is Ainissa Ramirez.

    What to read after The Alchemy of Us?

    If you're wondering what to read next after The Alchemy of Us, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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