My way of unwinding at the end of the day is to watch YouTube videos. I suspect I’m not the only one, and yes, I’m well aware of how it’s not the best thing to do before one falls asleep, but it’s a habit that has, well, stuck.
So it goes.
Yesterday, one of the videos I ended up watching was this one:
I came across Veritasium thanks to a recommendation I received sometime last year, and if you aren’t familiar with this channel, I strongly encourage you to look it up. You might also want to read up about the person behind the channel, Derek Muller.
These waves were detected at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. They have a shorter name, thankfully: LIGO.
The design and construction of LIGO was carried out by a team of scientists, engineers, and staff at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and collaborators from over 80 scientific institutions world-wide that are members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/page/about
Here’s just one of many astounding facts from the LIGO website:
At its most sensitive state, LIGO will be able to detect a change in distance between its mirrors 1/10,000th the width of a proton! This is equivalent to measuring the distance to the nearest star (some 4.2 light years away) to an accuracy smaller than the width of a human hair.https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/page/facts
Here’s a photo of the laboratory:
Here’s what I found remarkable, as a student of economics: even if one assumes that there was only one person from each of these 80 scientific institutions that worked on this project, it still means that there were 80 people whose job it was to create really, really long tunnels (four kilometers in length!) that would have one trillionth of the normal atmospheric pressure, so that they could detect almost imperceptible gravitational waves that started their journey 1.3 billion light years away. If all this sounds mind-boggling, well, it is.
But think about those 80 people for a minute. Our civilization has become wealthy enough, over many millennia, that we’re able to say to those eighty people that they can spend a significant chunk of their careers on building long tunnels to try and check on barely detectable phenomena that actually took place a really, really long way away.
Was there a time in our past when humanity could afford to dedicate human labour, money and other resources to a pursuit such as this one? You and I may have different opinions about whether we should or not (and I think we should), but I think we can all agree that it is remarkable that we can.
And on that note, read The Company of Strangers:
Homo sapiens sapiens is the only animal that engages in elaborate task-sharing—the division of labor as it is sometimes known—between genetically unrelated members of the same species. It is a phenomenon as remarkable and uniquely human as language itself. Most human beings now obtain a large share of the provision for their daily lives from others to whom they are not related by blood or marriage.Pg 4, Introduction, The Company of Strangers, by Paul Seabright
And because most human beings now obtain a large share of the provision for their daily lives from others to whom they’re not related by blood or marriage, they are free to do other things with their time. Some of us write blogs on economics, while others build really, really large tunnels to detect barely perceptible gravitational waves. Others create videos about these really long tunnels. But none of these proposals would have gone down well in earlier times, because there were more urgent and pressing tasks at hand, such as growing enough food for everybody to be able to eat.
And so while the completely amateur fan of modern physics in me appreciated learning more about LIGO, the economist in me was struck by how impressive a fact it was they we have the ability to dedicate so much resources to the development of this laboratory.
Again: you and I may have different opinions about whether or not we should be building these laboratories, or sending people to the moon (or Mars, soon enough!), or everything else that we get up to these days. But the fact that we can is truly remarkable.
And don’t forget Derek Muller! Isn’t it remarkable that I, sitting in the comfort of my living room, can cast a video off of my phone on to my television, and watch an excellent video about the LIGO laboratory without having to pay a cent to Derek?
I only learnt of Derek’s existence last year, and I can guarantee you that he is blissfully unaware of mine. And yet, the society we live in has made it possible for me to learn about his work, and this video in particular. I pay YouTube Rs. 189 every month so that I and five other members of my family can watch YouTube videos without being bombarded by ads, but that money apart, I had to pay nothing more to enjoy this video – and by all accounts, Derek is able to do fairly well for himself by putting videos out there for people to watch and learn from.
How did we get from hunter-gatherer societies to here? How did division of labor help? Was agriculture a wonderful, welcome development, or was it all a big fat mistake? What about the development of kingdoms, the advent of religions, the desire to educate our young, the development of the study of physiology and eventually health and medicine, and so, so many other things? What explains how and why we were able to do all of these things, and so many more? If we could reset the clock and play the movie all over again, would all of these things happen, or not? Could we do an even better job? If so, how?
Economics is about so much more than graphs and diagrams and equations (that stuff is important too, of course, but there is so much more to this field than just that).
Every now and then, economics is also about taking a step back while watching a wonderfully well made video, and just reflecting on how far we’ve come as humanity. Yes, there is a lot that remains to be done, and yes, we’ve often taken one step forward and two steps back. And yes, we’ll probably figure out how to take ten steps back in the near future.
But for the moment, I find it remarkable that at least eighty people got together and built a pair of really, really large tunnels to detect Very Small Movements.
That’s division of labor, that’s economics, and it is a truly remarkable thing to think about.
And it’s just one of many, many reasons to study economics.