There’s a new podcast out from Gimlet Media hosted by Adam McKay (Will Ferrell’s writing partner and the director of the good Ferrell movies (The Other Guys, Anchorman Step Brothers) and the upcoming The Big Short) and Adam Davidson (business and economics reporter for NPR, and host of Planet Money) called Surprisingly Awesome. Basically, the premise is that these two guys try and find something seemingly boring, banal, or mundane and blow each others minds by revealing fascinating facts and/or history about the topic. For instance, in the second episode, Adam McKay actually managed to make the topic of “free throws” interesting by exploring the psychology behind what makes someone a good free-throw shooter.
This week, Adam Davidson took up the topic of “concrete.” I was skeptical. What could Davidson possibly unearth about concrete that would make it interesting.
A lot, actually.
Concrete is made up of sand, rock, water and cement. Cement is made when you heat limestone up to 3000 degrees. What’s interesting about that is that they can trace a primitive discovery of cement back 12,000 years to the foothills of the mountains in Turkey where, as Davidson theorizes, one man saw limestone turned to cement when it was struck by lightning and he decided he’d like to duplicate the process by creating a giant oven to heat limestone up to 3000 degrees.
This is mindblowing because this was happening before the discovery of wheat and bread, and before people were even cooking meat. They knew how to make cement before they knew how to make steak! At the time, there was no civilization — just pockets of hunter gatherers. However, the discovery of cement — and the creation of this oven to heat limestone — brought people together for the very first time in human civilization. Using this cement, they built a church, which still stands today in Turkey, and within centuries, human civilization began to develop in that area. The discovery of wheat, domesticated animals, and most European languages can be traced to this area.
All thanks to concrete.
The second half of the episode took up why concrete is still interesting, and there again, revealed facts of which I had no knowledge. For instance, Davidson suggests that the huge earthquakes that kill thousands of people in places like Haiti are not “natural disasters,” they are “concrete disasters.” Cement is expensive, and in many countries like Haiti, shady contractors don’t add enough cement to the concrete, so when an earthquake rumbles through, buildings that would be able to withstand huge earthquakes in America completely collapse. What’s even more interesting is that, in countries like these, those who control the cement industry are the richest people in those countries. (In Haiti, for instance, the cement industry is operated by the family of the President’s wife). In other words, government corruption killed 300,000 people in Haiti in 2010. Compare that to the number of deaths in New Zealand caused by earthquakes of similar magnitude that same year: 0.
As Mother Jones argues, “corrupt countries have been responsible for 83 percent of all deaths caused by building collapse during earthquakes over the last 30 years.” Why? Because the construction industry goes unregulated in those countries, and in large part because builders don’t use as much cement in their concrete as they should be using.
It all goes back to concrete.
It was a fascinating conversation, and through three episodes, “Surprisingly Awesome” has been a Surprisingly Awesome podcast.