New Haven's Ainissa Ramirez is a finalist for a LA Times Book Prize

Scientist and author Ainissa Ramirez was named a finalist for the 2020 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.

Scientist and author Ainissa Ramirez was named a finalist for the 2020 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.

Bruce Fizzel / Contributed photo

Material scientist and author Ainissa Ramirez, whose book “The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another” was already praised as one of Smithsonian Magazine’s 10 Best Science books last year, is now a finalist for the prestigious 2020 Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

The New Haven resident’s book explores eight inventions — clocks, steel rails, copper communication cables, photographic film, light bulbs, hard disks, scientific labware and silicon chips — to reveal how each one helped to shape the human experience.

Prizes will be awarded virtually on Friday, April 16. We spoke to Ramirez about her work.

What does being nominated for this award mean to you?

I am thrilled, but also humbled by the recognition. In “The Alchemy of Us,” I took a unique approach of telling science stories as a way to explain the impact of technology. I wanted to give readers an engaging way to experience science. There aren’t too many books that use stories this way, so I feel validated that the judges from the LA Times Book Prize gave my book a thumbs up.

How did you find out you were in the running, and what was your initial reaction?

An email was forwarded to me from my publisher. Then, a day later, I got an email from the LA Times directly. When I first found out, I don’t think my brain registered the significance, but soon it hit me. I wasn’t able to get any work done the rest of that day.

Why is it important for organizations like this to recognize books that deal with science and technology?

When organizations like the LA Times put their seals of approval on a book, it alerts book lovers worldwide that this is a book they should pick up. While my book falls under the topic of science and technology, being selected tells readers this is a book that will engage them differently than other books on this topic.

Why was this a subject you wanted to write about?

Most people don’t know what materials science is, yet it is the reason why their cellphones work, why lightbulbs work, and why the internet works. I wanted readers to know more about the inventions around them, so that they can feel more connected to science and to the world.

Why is it important to get young people interested in this field?

I feel strongly that young people should know STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), but not so that they can become future scientists. I want them to know STEM because they are going to need it to make decisions about the technologies that surround them, from AI (artificial intelligence) to driver-less cars. The reason why I wrote my book is that I wanted readers, particularly young readers, to feel more connected to science, so they will feel comfortable asking questions.

You mentioned that you didn’t really know about material science until you were a student at Brown University in 1986. What was it that interested you enough to pursue it?

There are many books about science, from astronomy to quantum physics. These topics are hard to get your hands around, never mind your head. I like materials science because it deals with stuff you can touch. It is on the human scale and it is about stuff that makes up everything around us. Because I can see and feel materials, this is why this field of science is meaningful to me.

Were there other inventors you found who you had to keep out of the book because of space? Give us an example of someone who just missed the cut.

One was a clever scientist named Norman Heatley who helped to produce penicillin during World War II. Heatley was the original MacGyver. Using bedpans and bookcases, he made all kinds of technical equipment, which were not available to civilians during the war. Unfortunately, Heatley only gets a brief mention in “The Alchemy of Us.”

What’s going on with your next book? Can you give us a sneak peek as to what to expect?

I am writing a series of children’s picture books about little-known scientists and inventors. Many of them made items that we use every day. I am also working on an adult book about materials science and inventions, but that book will take some time to write.

Keith Loria is a freelance writer.