November 17, 2015

#3 Concrete

by Surprisingly Awesome

Background show artwork for Surprisingly Awesome

From the dawn of human civilization, to the end of days: Concrete will outlast us all.

Additional Reading

Göbekli Tepe and "The Birth of Religion" by Charles C. Mann for National Geographic

Concrete Planet: The Strange and Fascinating Story of the World's Most Common Man-Made Material by Robert Courland

The Facts

The Reverend John DeLore and Michael Garofalo mixed this episode. John performed music for this episode, along with his bandmates, Jordan Scanella, Sam Merrick, Isamu McGregor, Jon LaDeau, Dominic Fallacaro. This episode also features the song "Choke California" by Tyler Strickland

Thanks to Matthew Nelson for production assistance.

Our theme music is “How We Do,” written, performed, and produced by Nicholas Britell.

Our ad music is by Build Buildings.

Where to Listen


Adam Davidson: From Gimlet Media, this is Surprisingly Awesome. I’m Adam Davidson.

Adam McKay: I’m Adam McKay. 

AD: The idea of this show is to take a topic that seems like, eh sounds kind of boring, and reveal no, it is not boring, it is fascinating, it is rich, it is exciting, it is surprisingly awesome.

AM: So you have brought me a doozy today, to bore me. To shatter my natural interest in subjects.

AD: Oh man, McKay I cannot wait to get into this with you: concrete. 

AM: Goddamn that's boring. I mean, I don't know if that's the most boring words you could say, I mean there's a few others you could say like credit card tray, particle board. Yeah. You've done well. My initial instinct is I don't care about that, I don't want to talk about it, I don't want to think about it.

AD: So walk me through just some of the things you think about, like what.

AM: I just start to get bored, I want to move on. I know there's no sense in even fighting that battle, because roads are essential, sidewalks are essential. It's not going anywhere. And I've skinned my knee probably in my lifetime about 15 times on concrete and pavement, so I think of that.

AD: And that's just annoying. It's not just boring, it's boring plus annoying. You're not even that passionately uninterested.

AM: No, no, no.

AD: It's just like, eh, fine.

AM: And this honest, and you know I'm a pretty curious guy. I trust you, so I suspect that you're going to dig something out of this that's interesting, although I am dubious. But I wanted to bring someone else on the show who doesn't know you and is just going to give you a real reaction to this. So our guest today is La La Anthony. She's an actress, fashion designer, entrepreneur, bestselling author. She can be seen in the Starz original drama series Power. Please welcome, La La Anthony.

La La Anthony: Hi.

AD: Hi La La.

LA: Hello how are you?

AD: How are you?

LA: Good!

AD: So, first off, I want to give you permission to just be honest.

LA: I'm very honest.

AD: My goal is for you to tell someone tonight, concrete is REALLY awesome. Let me tell you a little bit about concrete.

LA: Okay.

AM: And La La you're already thinking, there's no way that that's ever going to happen, right?

LA: Ever in life. The fact that I'm sitting here talking about it is already boring to me.


AD: Alright so I have a big challenge. Let’s start by imagining it’s 100 million years from now, far, far into the future, humans as a species have long since disappeared. The steel in our buildings will have long since rusted away, all the homes we’ve made out of wood will have long since disintegrated, almost all of our bones and everything else will be gone. All that will be left of our time, the key marker of everything human beings have done will be this smushed layer of rock and that rock will be concrete. And imagine there’s some species alive then, who knows what it will be, that has something a lot like an archaeologist, and they start digging through the earth to figure out what came before. That will be what is left of our time on this planet. This will be known as the age of concrete.

AD: So what is this thing called concrete? Well concrete is a mixture. It’s a mixture of something called cement, and then a bunch of little rocks or sand, and water. And you mix them up together and they harden into this rock substance known as concrete. And the key to all this is that substance cement. That’s what turns loose gravel and sand and water into a rock that can last for millions and millions of years. Cement actually owes its origin to something that happened millions and millions of years ago.

AD: Long before there were any earth dwelling creatures, all living things lived in the water. And one of the most abundant things was this ancient kind of creature known as a trilobite. You know those things they kind of look like a horseshoe crab, there were lots of different varieties but they all had these shells made of calcium ...

AM: I'm starting to get a little bored, I'm going to be honest.

AD: Oh really? Okay, that’s good to know

AM: La La how you holding up?

LA: I started running the lines for my audition later. I'm sorry!

AM: You were supposed to be 100 percent honest.

LA: Okay, I was like damn, how am going to play this cop again?

AM: Well you started really strong!

AD: I started strong but I lost you with the trilobites. Okay.

AD: Well I found that whole thing fascinating by the way but we’ll skip over it. So the next thing I want to talk about is how human beings harnessed cement. Now I remember when I was in college I took this course and they told us the history of human civilization, it’s human beings started as hunter gatherers. Cement we thought came really late in human history because to make it you needed a fire that’s 3000 degrees hot and archaeologists assumed that there is no way that primitive hunters and gatherers could get a fire that hot. But then just in the last few years there’s been a series of discoveries that have just rocked the world of archaeology. We now know that long before human beings ever cooked bread, when we were still hunter gatherers living in caves, we were somehow making cement.

AM: Alright that actually blows my mind. How is that possible when you just said that you had to heat it 3000 degrees.

AD: So when you go to the foothills of the Taurus mountains in Turkey that is where the very first human beings left the caves, left ...

LA: I didn't even know that by the way, so that's kind of cool.

AM: I didn't know that place in Turkey either, I always just thought Africa.

LA: Hello, I always thought Africa too!

AD: Well human beings started in Africa. But the first villages, the first ...

AM: The first civilizations I guess he’s saying …

AD: Because Africa was too abundant, Africa like, there was too much food. So people didn't need to come together in that way.

AM: That's also interesting ... you're on a roll. I’m gonna give it up to you. You’re doing good.

AD: Okay, okay, good. This is in the foothills of the Taurus mountains in southern Turkey. And one of the theories is that around 12,000 years ago long before animals had been fully domesticated and plants had been domesticated before we were heating food back when we were scrounging around for raw meat and eating grubs and whatever.

Somebody it might have been just one person going for a walk one day and they saw a lightning strike hit some limestone and then they found this powder there. And somehow they got this powder and water together. And this is cement. And you can just imagine, I mean that’s cool now, I mean but just imagine what that must have been like to some hunter gatherer walking through the fields one day. And so we don’t know exactly how it happened it might have been one person seeing this and saying hey I want to do that again, maybe it was a group of people but basically the idea is, that they realized lightning did that, lightning’s hot we need to heat this limestone up. And we obviously don’t know exactly how it worked but I like to imagine it was some early genius, some Stoneage Thomas Edison who spent you know maybe 20 years experimenting and experimenting, and eventually finding a way to build a giant oven. We call it a burgundy bottle kiln, it kinda looks like the top of a bottle of wine, and they throw the limestone in there and they put lots and lots of wood in there, until it gets super super hot, and then he or she we don’t know ...

LA: Probably a she.

AD: Probably a she.

AM: Yeah.

AD: Would then have this powder and would mix it with water and then they could start forming rocks in specific shapes. And you could imagine that other people would see this person this shaman or whatever as some kind of a magician I mean it really was magic this was a person who could control fire and rock.

LA: Yeah it sounds like Harry Potter.

AD: Yeah exactly!

AM: Or I was going to say... Burning Man.

AD: Yeah and so the theory is that 12,000 years ago, in this hilly area of southern Turkey, there’s this crazy fire kiln thing going on, there’s this limestone being converted into sand, which is being converted into human-controlled rocks, and hunter gathers from all over began coming there. It became a sacred place, a holy place, and so what we imagine is hunter gatherers from all around living in tiny little kinship groups would come together and work together to chop down trees and help this magic happen.

AD: And it’s the first church, and it still is there now, you can go to Turkey right now and see it. And it seems very possible that act brought people together above like, the family level, into like, something like the very beginning of civilization.

AD: And shockingly it's centuries later, hundreds of years later, that they start thinking like hey, we got all of this heat, let's see what hot meat tastes like. Let's start like smashing some of these grasses, and mix those with water, and make bread. So it seemed like ...

AM: Wow.

AD: It seemed like this cement what actually brings people together.

AM: That's amazing! Wait, did you just do this to La La and I? Did you just argue that cement is the reason for modern civilization?

AD: Cement is the first time people that weren't directly related, gathered together for a common purpose. And what we see is, where you see that cement, few centuries later you see small villages, few centuries later you see large cities. Eventually you see massive civilization. We actually know that all the wheat eaten in the world - because they can genetically tell this - comes from right there. So wheat is domesticated right there, where these people were doing this cement stuff. The first sheep and goat and cows, they all come from there. There's also evidence that Indo European languages, so that's English, that's all of European languages. That's the major language groups in India, are from that area too. So, all the attributes of modern civilization come from that little place.

AM: In Turkey?

AD: In Turkey, southeastern Turkey.

AM: The idea that concrete is like at the beginning of modern civilization, and the rallying point for the you know structures that built the first cities and villages and ... that's mind-blowing.

LA: Right. Right. Right. Mind blowing.  I love that. It was just interesting to me because there's a history about it. It’s something you don't even think twice about when you're walking, or seeing. Now it's like, oh, wow, there's history behind this.

AD: Coming up, after the break: We will fast forward 12,000 years and learn how concrete is central to the lives of billions of people and will determine whether they have long, healthy lives, or tragic short ones.


AD: Welcome back to Surprisingly Awesome, I’m Adam Davidson.

AM: I’m Adam McKay.

AD: And today we have a special guest, actress La La Anthony.

LA: Hello.

AD: Before the break we were talking about how cement, quite possibly created human civilization. And it definitely made it possible for us to live in these big, crowded cities, and that’s, I guess, a positive thing. But there is a huge a negative effect of concrete on human life.

I was in Haiti very soon after the earthquake hit and I saw in person what you saw on TV. There was everywhere, crumbled buildings, crumbled shopping malls, crumbled hotels, with bits of metal rebar sticking out of them. Even the Presidential Palace, their White House, was destroyed. I was actually interviewing the president of Haiti at the time, Rene Preval, we were in a back building, a small building that hadn’t collapsed and we were in the middle of the interview and there was a small aftershock, these were happening all the time, as they often do after a big earthquake, and the president of Haiti freaked out. He bolted for the door and said let’s get out, let’s get out! And remember these were happening all the time, this was a very mild aftershock but it just showed what trauma he had experienced. What I kept hearing, from government officials, from people on the street, from engineers was the earthquake in Haiti, this was not a natural disaster. This was a concrete disaster.

AM: Uhhh... I didn't know that.

LA: I find that interesting.

AD: That earthquake in Sichuan China back in 2008, the earthquake in 2005 in Pakistan, these are generally not natural disasters, these are concrete disasters. All for the same reason, and it’s a very simple, yet horrible reason - economically there’s a huge incentive to make concrete badly. Cement is very expensive. And so, if you're an unscrupulous builder ...

LA: Yeah you’re trying to find a cheaper way to do it.

AD: You cut back, you hold back a little cement, it looks the same, but it’s not going to hold up.

LA: But it’s not gonna be as sturdy.

AD: And so the buildings shatter. So we went to Brooklyn to a concrete mixing factory.

Phillip Mazone: <<You ready? Yeah. Here we got one of our brand new trucks, got about a yard of concrete in it. Give it a second you’ll hear it roar.>>

AD: This is King Building Materials.

PM: <<This is where we actually make the concrete.>>

AD: And this guy is Philip.

AD/PM: <<Philip...what? Mazzone>>

AD: And I asked Philip to walk me through all the ingredients that go into the concrete they make here.

PM <<Cement, fly ash, stone, sand, water, and admixtures - chemicals.>>

AD: But cement, cement is the biggie.

PM/AD: <<Cement is uh percentage … you are going to get me on numbers here, buddy.

The cement, I’d say is about 15 percent of the mix.

But cement is the most expensive part?

Yes, most expensive. Without cement there no binding.

So if we lowered that to 10 percent, you could save a lot of money on cement.

You sure you could save money, but you can’t have a job site collapse on you. So basically, an engineer tells you what to use. You can’t cheat. You can cheat - but you don’t want to cheat.

Because you are going to get caught.

You are gonna get caught. >>

AD: Philip told me there are lots of people on his job sites where he delivers his concrete, taking samples and making sure there is plenty of cement in it. There are government inspectors, the developer has their own inspectors. Now, after the earthquake I spent a lot of time in Haiti. I’ve also spent a lot of time in Iraq. And I can tell you, they do not test there like they do here. Something that I've noticed in poor countries is the cement and concrete business is huge, it is a major force in their economies. Here’s a way I think about it: If I went up to President Obama and said, who is the top concrete guy, in America? Who would that be? And of course he’d say, I don't know. And if you asked him, well who are top business people, he’d say well I guess, the Google guys, the head of Goldman Sachs, the head of General Electric.

AD: But if you go up to the president of Haiti, the president of Iraq, the president of almost any country in sub-saharan African, or much of southeast Asia, Latin America, and you say who is the top concrete guy, he will definitely will know. In fact if you went up to Rene Preval, the president of Haiti at the time of the earthquake and asked who are the top concrete people in your country, he’d definitely know one of them, because it was his wife’s family. CDG Concrete, which is one of the leading concrete companies in Haiti, was, and this was widely reported at the time, owned by the family of the president’s wife. And you often hear that in very poor countries - the richest people run the concrete business. And broadly, around the world you often see these powerful families also owning the companies that buy the concrete to make buildings and hospitals and schools and airports.

AM: Corruption.

AD: No one’s proved that for Haiti. But I will say that very often, it’s just a tiny handful of families controlling all of that concrete.

AD: The last thing I will just say cause to me, this was actually the most important. I don't know if it's the most interesting, but the most important. So cement is a major contributor to CO2 emissions, to dirtying up our air.

LA: Okay.

AM: So I didn't know this at all.

AD: We went to a cement plant we saw the process. We saw the process. They’re blowing up limestone cliffs, bringing the rocks, bringing them into this massive furnace, it's like a city block, two city blocks long, this giant furnace with just jets of coal blasting into it.

Lorraine Faccenda: <<So do you wanna take a walk under the kiln, feel a little bit of the heat?>>

AD: Lorraine Faccenda, the plant manager, at Lafarge Cement in in rural Pennsylvania, showed me this. There were actually two of these massive furnaces although only one was running the day of our visit.

LF/AD: <<Yeah right here. It’s much warmer. But it’s like 3000 degrees right above our head. 1850 C, 3000 or so Fahrenheit. But it’s not that hot. It is still cold, but if you were to walk up next to the kiln or into the preheater, you would certainly feel warm. Everyone wants to work in the preheater in the winter, and somewhere else in the summer.>>

LA: Is everyone wearing masks?

AD: No.

LA: Okay …

LA: Jesus.

AD: They have air scrubbers. It actually was less dirty than you'd think, although it was very dusty. So that heat is a huge problem right there, but then the process itself, like what is happening chemically inside, is the limestone is releasing carbon dioxide as it converts into this new material called cement. And so it’s, it's more than airplanes. It's like the number three. It’s like after cars, um after coal, it's the next big, big, big one.

AM: Wow.

AD; But there's something amazing about cement that makes it totally different from every other greenhouse gas emitting product. Which is, it actually can be a net positive. There's ways of making cement that are, um, where that same process that releases CO2 actually absorbs CO2. There's ways of embedding these materials within the concrete in a building, that when it's hot it absorbs heat and cools the building, and when it's cold it releases heat. So it eliminates the need for air conditioning and heating, et cetera. So the last thing I would just say is, I know, you very much care about the environment, you annoy and bore your family on it ...

LA: Hey I care about the environment.

AM: I'm gonna guess La La does as well.

AD: You hear a lot about electric cars, you care a lot about - you support Tesla.

AM: Sure.

AD: You hear a lot about coal, and trying to move away from coal. Have you ever heard of anyone talk about cement or concrete? Is that part of the ...

LA: I have never heard that.

AM: Is there a chance La La that you would host a benefit for concrete? To absorb CO2?

LA: I think so! I think so!

AD: Seriously?

AM: Wow!

LA: Because now that I'm understanding it more, yes! And I did learn a lot today that I didn't know. And I found it to be quite interesting.

AM: You know what he got me on the most natural disasters are concrete disasters.

LA: That was, now that was very interesting to me.

AM: That might've been the best thing actually.

LA: It's like to the point, this might sound crazy, but like, when I get in the car, I'm probably gonna call my friend like, I gotta tell you what just happened.


LA: Did you know this about concrete? And they'll probably hang up with me. But still, the point is, I feel like I need to share this knowledge with someone. Maybe my son who is 7 might be somewhat interested. When I pick him up now and I tell him about concrete.

AM: That's amazing.

AD: That is amazing, yeah. I've gotta say, I have a huge smile on my face. That makes me feel very, very proud.

AD: This episode of Surprisingly Awesome was produced by Alex Kapelman, Robyn Wholey, and Rachel Ward. It was edited by Alex Blumberg.

Original music for this episode by Tyler Strickland and also the band is John DeLore along with his band mates, Jordan Scanella, Sam Merrick, Isamu McGregor, Jon LaDeau, Dominic Fallacaro.

Our theme music is by the fabulous Nicholas Britell.

The Reverend John DeLore and Michael Garafalo mixed this episode.

Our ad music is by Build Buildings.

We’ll be back in two weeks with more Surprisingly Awesome. We’d love your ideas of topics that lots of people think sound really boring but are secretly awesome. Please tweet at us @surprisingshow or visit our Facebook page. You can also email us at

Surprisingly Awesome is a production of Gimlet Media.