Category Archives: Science

Bats and Price Theory

A Gordon Tullock-esque insight about the law of demand and why bats hunt at night, on p. 30 of Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker (thanks to Don Boudreaux for the recommendation):

Bats have a problem: how to find their way around in the dark. … But the daytime economy is already heavily exploited by other creatures such as birds. Given that there is a living to be made at night, natural selection has favored bats that make a go of the night-hunting trade.

In other words, animals are careful shoppers. Bats, or their ancestors, moved from higher-priced daytime hunting to lower-priced night-time hunting. Prices, in this case, being not money, but effort, food availability, and amount of competition. Had night and day’s hunting “prices” been the same, bats’ nocturnalism, and related traits such as sonar, would likely not have evolved.

Economics is everywhere, day and night.

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Economics Is Everywhere – Richard Feynman Edition

Economics is everywhere. Physicist Richard Feynman, while working at Los Alamos laboratory, re-discovered Adam Smith’s division of labor after some computer troubles and apparently didn’t even know it (he never mentions Adam Smith or the division of labor in this story):
In this particular case, we worked out all the numerical steps that the machines were supposed to do–multiply this, and then do this, and subtract that. Then we worked out the program, but we didn’t have any machine to test it on. So we set up this room with girls in it. Each one has a Marchant [old-timey calculator]: one was the multiplier, another was the adder. This one cubed–all she did was cube a number on anindex card and send it to the next girl.
 We went through our cycle this way until we got all the bugs out. It turned out that the speed at which we were able to do it was a hell of a lot faster than the other way, where every single person did all the steps. We got speed with this system that was the predicted speed for the IBM machine.
-Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, p. 126.

In One Lifetime

In Carl Sagan’s essay “In Praise of Science and Technology,” which appears as chapter 4 of his book Broca’s Brain (see location 682 of the Kindle edition), he writes:

There are many people alive today who were born before the first airplane and have lived to see Viking land on Mars, and Pioneer 10, the first interstellar spacecraft, be ejected from the solar system.

Sagan wrote that essay in the 1970s. This got me thinking about my daughter, born in 2015. She will almost certainly live to see the year 2100. What marvels will she have witnessed by that time? It sure is a good time to be alive.

The Trouble with the Median Voter, as Expressed by a Scientist

A memory from Carl Sagan’s childhood, which he shares on pages 133-34 in the book version of Cosmos:

Even with an early bedtime, in winter you could sometimes see the stars. I would look at them, twinkling and remote, and wonder what they were. I would ask older children and adults, who would only reply, “They’re lights in the sky, kid.” I could see they were lights in the sky. But what were they? Just small hovering lamps? Whatever for? I felt a kind of sorrow for them: a commonplace whose strangeness remained somehow hidden from my incurious fellows. There had to be some deeper answer.

And from the following paragraph, which, while still depressing, at least ends on a positive note:

I asked the librarian for something on stars. She returned with a picture book displaying portraits of men and women with names like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. I complained, and for some reason then obscure to me, she smiled and found another book–the right kind of book.

Sagan’s career went just fine from there. But how many young would-be Sagans of all disciplines have had their growth stunted by social pressure put on them by other people’s lack of wonder?

In my own native discipline, the layman’s instinctive dismissal of the economic way of thinking is a public tragedy. I feel a twinge of sadness every time someone turns down Bastiat’s enticing invitation to see the unseen, or waves off Adam Smith’s invisible hand, without giving it a second thought (or, often, a first).

The opportunity cost of incuriosity may be even larger than Dawson and Seater suggest in their recent paper, which is a per capita income roughly triple what it actually is today. Frankly, it’s a minor miracle public policies aren’t even worse than they already are.

A little bit of simple curiosity would go a long way towards making the world not just a more interesting place to live, but a wealthier, safer, and friendlier one.

Regulations in Space

From the footnote on p. 79 of the 1985 paperback edition of Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos:

There are many unexpected developments in mustering spacecraft to explore the planets. This is one of them: Among the instruments aboard one of the Pioneer Venus entry probes was a net flux radiometer, designed to measure simultaneously the amount of infrared energy flowing upwards and downwards at each position in the Venus atmosphere. The instrument required a sturdy window that was also transparent to infrared radiation. A 13.5-karat diamond was imported and milled into the desired window. However, the contractor was required to pay a $12,000 import duty. Eventually, the U.S. Customs service decided that after the diamond was launched to Venus it was unavailable for trade on Earth and refunded the money to the manufacturer.

This reminds me of the customs form the Apollo 11 crew filled out upon their return to Earth.

Trade and Immigration Restrictions Have Evolutionary Origins

It’s a point I’ve made before, but human beings are hardwired to affirm their in-group and vilify out-groups. It takes a lot of social conditioning to get people to be polite to strangers. This also explains the continuing popularity of trade barriers and immigration restrictions, in the face of basic economics. It also explains why, despite massive improvements in recent decades, racism and homophobia will almost certainly never die. People will always look for reasons to not get along with each other.

According to Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s delightful 1992 book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, humanity’s inborn suspicion of outsiders actually predates humanity. It goes back billions of years, and has been observed in bacteria (see location 1773 of the Kindle edition):

You may be a ruthless, implacable predator, but you must also be a pushover for your relatives and neighbors. So all of you may suffuse your outer membranes with a chemical that serves for species recognition. When you taste this molecule emanating from another microbe, you become very affable. “Friend,” the chemical says. “Sister.” Other chemicals carry different information. Some bacteria routinely produce their own chemical warfare agents, antibiotics that are harmless to themselves and others of their own strain, but deadly to bacteria of different strains, foreigners. A delicate balance has evolved between hostility to the outside group and cooperation with the inside group. Them and us. The first intimations of xenophobia and ethnocentrism evolved early.

CEI Podcast for November 27, 2013: Toxic Turkey Day?

turkey
Have a listen here.

Senior Fellow Angela Logomasini debunks scare stories about chemicals in your family’s Thanksgiving dinner, ranging from BPA in canned foods to naturally occurring pesticides in potatoes. Anti-chemical activists forget the cardinal rule of toxicology: it is the dose that makes the poison. Relax, eat well, and enjoy spending time with your family this Thanksgiving.