Putting the Story Back in Science

From Public Books:

I first met Ainissa Ramirez at an astonishing venue: the Qatar National Convention Center, in Doha. The date was in October 2013. We were both speakers at the World Innovation Summit for Education, a biennial meeting organized by the Qatari royal family to showcase new ideas on educational reform. Dr. Ramirez, then a 44-year-old materials scientist and a former member of the Yale faculty, described herself as a “science evangelist,” and she had strong ideas to promote. The professor said she hoped to encourage a whole generation of young women, especially young women of color, to lend their talents to the scientific endeavor.

“You can do it,” she told some of the young women she met at the conference. “You can change the world through science.”

Not long after returning to the US, Ainissa Ramirez contacted me, inquiring if she might audit my Columbia Master’s in Sustainability Management class, “Writing about Global Science for the International Media.” She’d been thinking about switching her focus from academe to science journalism; she wanted to write more and do her teaching through the mass media. Dr. Ramirez already had one published book to her credit: a popular work she’d coauthored, Newton’s Football: The Science behind America’s Game. I really wanted to include her. But I was constrained by class-size limits, so I reluctantly said no.

Well, Ainissa Ramirez didn’t need my class, not for a nanosecond. She’s a brilliant storyteller, and she possesses an unusual talent for taking science stories and shaping them into a compelling narrative. That’s really the secret of great science writing: finding the story within the technical information, unspooling it, and then retelling it in a form that readers will find exciting. This shouldn’t be an impossible task. After all, science is a human endeavor, and most anything that human beings do is likely to be interesting. And yet, much of what is called science journalism fails to do it.

I have my own theories about why this is. One is that many science writers are themselves frustrated scientists, so they sometimes write with the same dryness they read in academic papers. Dr. Ramirez, however, has already labored as an academic scientist—Bell Laboratories, MIT, Yale—and is secure in her credentials. She knows what the other side of science journalism looks like, and she’s not worried that when she writes simply she might be “talking down.” Moreover, she doesn’t fret about the emotionality of an anecdote. In fact, she uses emotion (and irony) to drive her stories.

And that’s why Ainissa Ramirez is such a jewel. Her first solo book, The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, published by the MIT Press smack in the middle of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, tells the backstory of scientific inventions that influence our daily lives. Who knew that Christmas rituals were shaped by the growth of American railroads? That the size of modern humans was affected by the invention of the electric light? Ainissa Ramirez knows this and pulls readers into the technical story. The Alchemy of Us is one of those books that almost anyone in any field of endeavor will find interesting. That’s why more than a year after publication the work is still in print and has won much praise and a few prizes. Smithsonian magazine listed it as one of the best science books of 2020.

Link to the rest at Public Books