This Week, Capitalism Enabled the Seeing of the Unseeable

This Week, Capitalism Enabled the Seeing of the Unseeable
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Scientists this week revealed the first image ever made of a black hole, something that was previously thought to be unseeable. But now, we have a picture of it – thanks to capitalism.

The picture of a black hole – a dying star that has collapsed inward under the pressure of its own weight – 53 million light years from Earth was assembled from data gathered by eight radio telescopes around the world, linked together two years ago to form one giant telescope. And why were radio telescopes invented in the first place? Because a private-sector company needed them to address a commercial problem. The first rudimentary radio antennae used to identify an astronomical radio source was built in the 1930s by Karl Guthe Jansky, an engineer with Bell Telephone Laboratories. Bell, originally the Western Electric Engineering Company and now Nokia Bell Labs, needed Jansky to identify sources of static that that might interfere with radio telephone service.

His work was followed up by Grote Reber, one of the pioneers of what became known as radio astronomy. He built the first parabolic dish radio telescope in his own backyard in Wheaton, Illinois. Radio telescopes today are the principal observing instrument in radio astronomy. They were made possible because a large, well-capitalized private-sector firm had a problem it needed to solve and needed a technology to solve it. This use of a commercial invention is typical of the way wealth creation to grow profits spills over to other, broader uses.

The radio telescope was neither the first nor the last breakthrough by Bell Labs. The company is also credited with crucial steps in the development of the transistor, the laser, the photovoltaic cell, the Unix operating system, three programming languages, and a host of optical, wireless and wired communications technologies and systems. As a result of its ground-breaking work, nine Nobel Prizes and four Turing Awards have been given to scientists for work completed at Bell Laboratories.

Make no mistake, Nokia Bell Labs is very much a creature of capitalism. It was part of  Western Electric Company when it was purchased in the late 19th century by AT&T. The laboratory is the think tank for Nokia, and continues to exist because it helps the company make a profit. The radio telescope’s relationship to profitability ultimately led to the photos of the black hole, more than a century after Albert Einstein theorized of their existence.

The picture of the black hole is a wow moment. It was achieved by over 200 scientists from eight observatories. But it has been made possible by decades, really centuries, of learning and development driven by capitalism –  the desire to create wealth, and the determination of potential investors to grow their capital. The photos released this week are a tribute to capitalism, and the spin-off effects that occur when companies and investors seek to enhance their profitability.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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