What’s the Incentive for the Further Exploration of Titan?

Chesley Bonestell’s oil on board Saturn Viewed from Titan, circa 1952, realized $77,675 at a May 2010 Heritage auction. Bonestell’s paintings are credited with helping to inspire the U.S. space program.

By Jim O’Neal

In addition to mighty Jupiter, there are three outer planets: Saturn, Neptune and Uranus. Astronomers generally call them gas giants, though they consist mostly of liquid and have solid cores.

The four have a lot in common including numerous moons, deep stormy atmospheres and rings that consist of rock or ice flakes. Today, we take a brief look at one of them, Saturn, since we’ve gained a lot of valuable scientific information about it in the past 10-plus years.

For starters, it is the second-largest planet (after Jupiter) and about 10 times the size of Earth’s diameter. It shines like a bright yellow star and its most famous feature is a magnificent ring system that is easily seen with a common telescope.

What makes Saturn even more interesting is information gathered from the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting the planet since 2004. On Jan. 14, 2005, a probe from Cassini landed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The Huygens probe marked mankind’s first landing on a body in the Outer Solar System.

The mission was to monitor Titan’s atmosphere and surface.

Titan turns out to be one of the most Earth-like worlds we’ve found to date, with a thick atmosphere and organic, rich chemistry. Cassini has revealed that Titan’s surface is shaped by rivers and lakes of liquid ethane and methane (the main component of natural gas). It appears volcano-like with perhaps liquid water under an ice shell playing the role of lava.

It is analogous to a frozen version of Earth … before our cyanobacteria began pumping oxygen into our atmosphere. Scientists speculate there may be a huge liquid ocean beneath the surface. All we would need then would be to find there a few sunken Spanish galleons loaded with gold coins to spark a new numismatic frenzy!

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Albert Einstein was Much More than a Scientist

This signed Albert Einstein photograph realized $17,500 at an October 2014 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Mention the name Albert Einstein and instinctively the image of the iconic scientist with the unruly hair, pensive expression and the word “genius” spring to mind. As a theoretical physicist, his work on general relativity is a theory of gravitation that has evolved into a crucial tool in modern astrophysics and is foundational for current “black hole” research.

In popular culture, his mass-energy equivalence formula of energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared (E = mc2) is generally regarded as “the world’s most famous equation.”

Then, of course, there was Einstein the mortal man.

This aspect is understandably less well known despite his empathy for mankind and the practical application of both his intellect and celebrity to help improve the world and its inhabitants. He was an avowed pacifist who considered war a “disease” and even advocated for a global democratic government that had control over the nation-states (e.g. Nazi Germany).

He viewed racism in the United States as a multi-generational problem and joined the NAACP as an activist to help cure “America’s worst disease.”

An earlier incident in 1925 even led to a series of related activities that eventually helped defeat the Germans in World War II. While reading a local German newspaper, he saw a tragic story about a couple that had died from leaking gases used in early refrigerators.

Einstein collaborated with fellow physicist Leo Szilard and they received patent #1,781,541 for an improved, safer refrigerator. Although they later sold it to Electrolux for 3,150 DM ($10,000), Einstein’s basic motive was to simply improve living standards for common people. BTW, he later invented a hearing aid for the same reason.

When Szilard immigrated to London, he ran across a book by H.G. Wells, The World Set Free, which describes an invention (unnamed) that could accelerate the process of radioactive decay, producing bombs which “continue to explode for days on end.” This inspired Szilard to develop the concept of a nuclear chain reaction in 1933 and then he patented the idea of a nuclear reactor with the famous Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. Basically, he had a patent on the first atomic bomb.

But, in 1936 Szilard sold/assigned his chain-reaction patent to the British Admiralty to ensure its secrecy from the Germans or others considered untrustworthy.

He later suspected the Germans had a clandestine nuclear weapon project and on the eve of World War II drafted a letter to FDR to alert him to the potential development “of extremely powerful bombs of a new type.” He got Einstein to endorse it and to urge the United States to begin similar research.

This inevitably led to the Manhattan Project, which preempted the Germans and saved the world in the eyes of most experts.

Although Einstein supported the development of nuclear weapons to defend the Allies, he denounced the use of nuclear weapons as an offensive force. He never renounced his resolve as a pacifist or as an agnostic.

In 1999, Time magazine named Albert Einstein their choice as “Person of the Century.”

I hope we get one for this century … soon.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

‘Black Death’ is a Grim Reminder: Never Trust a Dirty Rat

A Folio Society 1999 edition of Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death went to auction in November 2012.

By Jim O’Neal

In five short years beginning in 1347, one-third of Europe – 25 million people – died of the bubonic plague. Many villages and towns lost 80 percent of their populations. A world that had just emerged from the Dark Ages and was moving into a new era was, suddenly, pockmarked with deserted farms, collapsed churches and zombie-like survivors.

Bubonic plague changed world history and mankind in ways that linger to this day. All subsequent epidemics – small pox, cholera, influenza and AIDS – are grim reminders of the terror of the “Black Death” and the specter of a world strewn with bodies and people defenseless against an invisible killer.

Although it wasn’t known at the time, the cause was a rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis (X. cheopis), a ravenous creature that lived on black rats and other rodents. X. cheopis carried the virulent plague bacillus and it came in two forms, both deadly to humans.

One was from direct contact via a flea bite, which was followed by a black purple bruising and a mortality rate of 60 percent in as little as five to seven days. The predominant form was pneumonic, which spread from person to person by air, infecting the lungs, with death in two to three days.

It had started deep in Asia, where China was in a war with the Mongols that devastated great swaths of the countryside. Infected rats, no longer able to find food in the forests, headed to populated areas, where the disease spread rapidly.

By the 1330s, China had lost 35 million people out of 125 million. Then X. cheopis began to travel with traders across Mongolia and Central Asia. In 1345, the plague hit the lower Volga River, followed by the Caucasus and Crimea before finally arriving in Italy in the summer of 1347.

The disease arrived in London in November and killed one-third to half of the total population within three days. The population of England and Wales was 6 million people.

After a quiet winter, it sprung up again in 1349, burning through England to Scotland, leaping to Ireland and crossing the sea to Scandinavia. After devastating Moscow in 1852, it exhausted itself on the barren/empty Russian Steppes.

The plague returned in 1362 in numerous, smaller recurrences until the 1600s. Another wave of plague swept through Asia in the 19th century and it was then that the role of both X. cheopis and the Y. pestis bacteria was discovered.

Although the last plague pandemic was contained, hundreds of plague cases are reported each year since X. cheopis still exists in remote wild rodents, perhaps with yet another strategy to plague us. Despite the advent of curative antibiotics, Black Death is still lurking … somewhere.

Do you know what’s in your attic?

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Edgar Mitchell Was An American Space Hero

The Intelligent Collector learned today that Edgar Mitchell, the sixth of 12 American astronauts to walk on the moon, died Thursday. Editor Hector Cantu interviewed Mitchell for our Spring 2008 issue, with excerpts re-published here to recognize and honor an American hero:

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As lunar module pilot for Apollo 14, Edgar Mitchell was the sixth man to walk on the moon. With Alan Shepard, he holds the record for the longest time on the surface for missions without the Lunar Rover – nine hours and 17 minutes. The 1971 mission, the third Apollo mission to land on the moon, had numerous other accomplishments: the first mission focused on lunar science, longest distance traversed on foot on the lunar surface, and the largest payload returned from the moon, 99 pounds. Mitchell remained with NASA until he retired from the Navy in 1972.

Q: How did walking on the moon change your life?
Mitchell: Walking on the moon did not, but seeing Earth from deep space in its place in the larger picture of the cosmos did. I realized and experienced at a visceral level that the molecules making up my body, the spacecraft, Earth and everything in and on it were made in an ancient generation of stars … and that everything is interconnected. It was a powerful epiphany that has caused quite a different approach to living for me.

Q: You returned from space more than 35 years ago. Are we as humans where you thought we’d be 35 years later, as far as exploring space and landing on other planets?
Mitchell: When getting my doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1960s, I thought [humans] might be ready for a trip to Mars by 1982. Clearly, that did not happen.

Q: What did you collect as a kid?
Mitchell: I was not a collector. My hobby was building model aircraft when I wasn’t working. [Today, I have a] collection of space flight memorabilia from my astronaut days, plus mementos from my travels to many parts of the globe during the past 40 years.

Q: What’s the most valuable item you had when you were growing up?
Mitchell: My pony. Following that, the calves that I raised, shown at the county fairs and sold at auction as a 4H Club member. We were a farm and ranching family.

Q: What kind of personal items did NASA allow you to take into space?
Mitchell: Any small, lightweight personal items for the family and friends like medallions, flags, rings, pins, broaches. For example, I carried for Gen. Omar Bradley his five-star collar insignia from World War II. And we carried a significant number of state and national flags for distribution to dignitaries and government officials.

Q: Explain the comments you’ve made about UFOs. What do you believe?
Mitchell: My own investigations, plus briefings by competent authorities at appropriate levels, allow me to know that we have been visited by alien beings. I have not been reticent to say that in appropriate circumstances.

Q: What is your passion these days?
Mitchell: My life is now about creating a sustainable future on Earth for my progeny and all life. We as a species are not currently being proper caretakers for planet Earth and will surely come to regret our short-sightedness in the near future, when it may be too late.

There is Perhaps an Unpleasant Way to Cool the Planet

This special promo poster for the 1969 movie Krakatoa, East of Java went to auction in August 2007.

By Jim O’Neal

Krakatoa, East of Java was a film released in 1969 that starred Maximilian Schell and Brian Keith. Despite being nominated for an Oscar for special effects, it did poorly at the box office (as did its 1970s re-release as Volcano).

Most trivia buffs are aware the movie was loosely based on an actual event in 1883 and that Krakatoa is actually west of Java. Far fewer are familiar with an earlier volcanic event that occurred on April 10, 1815, on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. A mountain named Tambora exploded in a truly spectacular fashion that was heard more than 2,000 miles away.

It was the biggest volcanic explosion in 10,000 years – 150 times greater than Mount St. Helens and equivalent to 60,000 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. Thirty-six cubic miles of smoky ash and dust erupted, killing an estimated 80,000+ people with the blast and tsunamis.

The 1815 Tambora eruption was the largest observed in recorded history anywhere on Earth. Clouds of gas and dust encircled the world, causing heavy rain in some areas and unprecedented snowfalls in others. Crops everywhere failed to grow normally.

In Ireland, a famine and associated typhoid epidemic killed 65,000 people.

Spring never came and summer never warmed. 1816 became known as “the year without a summer.”

In the Northeastern United States, a persistent “dry fog” was observed. The fog reddened and dimmed the sunlight to the point that sunspots were visible to the naked eye. Neither wind nor rain dispersed the fog and it was identified as a stratospheric surface aerosol veil.

On June 6, snow fell in Albany, N.Y., and conditions were such that most agricultural crops in North America were ruined. In New England, with typical wry humor, the year was dubbed “Eighteen Hundred and Frozen to Death.”

Since Indonesia has over 130 active volcanoes, the most of any nation, I suspect we will be “hearing” from them again in the future (pun intended).

P.S. Since global temperatures post-eruption fell 1.5 degrees, maybe Earth’s natural thermostat can help solve the global-warming trends. However, the side effects would be devastating.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

There Might be a Reason We Haven’t Met Little Green Men

Alien life forms as envisioned by Al Feldstein for the 1952 cover of Weird Fantasy #16. This original cover art realized $50,787 at a May 2012 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

I was discussing with friends the famous Fermi paradox, which raises the question: Why haven’t we detected signs of alien life, despite high estimates of probability – such as observations by the Kepler telescope of planets in the “habitable zone” around a Sun-like star and calculations of hundreds of billions of Earth-like planets in our galaxy that might support life?

Now, astrobiologists from Australian National University (ANU) Research School of Earth Sciences say they have the best answer: Because life on other planets would likely be brief and would become extinct quickly from runaway heating or cooling.

“The universe is probably filled with habitable planets, so many scientists think it should be teeming with aliens,” said Aditya Chopra, lead author of a paper published in Astrobiology. In fact, “early life is fragile, so we believe it rarely evolves quickly enough to survive. Most early planetary environments are unstable. To produce a habitable planet, life forms need to regulate greenhouse gases such as water and carbon dioxide to keep surface temperatures stable.”

For example, about 4 billion years ago, Earth, Venus and Mars may have all been habitable. However, a billion years after formation, Venus turned into a hothouse and Mars froze into an icebox. Early microbial life on Venus and Mars, if there was any, failed to stabilize the rapidly changing environment, while life on Earth played a leading role in stabilizing the planet’s climate.

The authors name this near-universal early extinction the “Gaian Bottleneck,” which also leads to the prediction that the vast majority of fossils in the universe (found in future meteorites, for example) will be from extinct microbial life, not from multicellular species such as dinosaurs or humanoids that take billions of years to evolve.

So far, that is the case.

The aliens are silent because they’re dead.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

There May be a Ninth Planet (Not You, Pluto)

This oil on board by Chesley K. Bonestell titled Solar System realized $7,170 at a June 2007 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“There might be a ninth planet in the solar system after all, and it is not Pluto.” — The New York Times, Jan. 21, 2016

Our solar system consists of the sun and a family of planets and other bodies trapped in orbit around it by the force of gravity.

Our sun formed 4.6 billion years ago. Vast amounts of matter were attracted by the developing star, but not all of it was absorbed. A tiny fraction of leftover material – a mere 0.14 percent of the solar system’s mass – formed a disc of gas and dust encircling the newborn star. Over millions of years, the grains of dust in this disc clumped together, growing into ever larger bodies.

Eventually, they grew to the size of planets, pulled into spheres by their own gravity.

In the inner solar system – where the sun’s heat was too intense for gases to condense – planets formed from rock and metal. In the outer solar system, gases condensed to form much larger planets.

Today, our solar system has eight planets, more than 100 moons, an unknown number of dwarf planets (e.g. Pluto) and countless millions of comets and asteroids.

The four small, inner planets are Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Our home planet is the only place known to support life, thanks to the liquid water on its surface and its PRECISE distance from the sun that provides just the right amount of heat.

Four gigantic planets dominate the outer solar system, very different from the rocky inner planets. These strange worlds are huge globes of gas and liquid, with no solid surfaces.

Mighty Jupiter is the fifth planet from the sun and the largest in the solar system, so big that it is 2.5 times more massive than all the other planets put together (1,300 Earths could easily fit inside Jupiter’s volume).

Its strong gravitational pull greatly affects the orbits of the other bodies in the solar system.

In 1665, a great red spot was first noticed that turns out to be a giant storm (bigger than Earth) that has been raging for over 350 years. Several craft have visited Jupiter, including Galileo, which orbited from 1995-2003.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].


The Blunder Before the Genius

This inscribed photograph of Albert Einstein, taken during his first visit to America, realized $26,290 at a February 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Albert Einstein called it “the greatest blunder of my life.”

Since he was not a cosmologist, he had accepted the prevailing wisdom that the universe was both fixed and eternal. As a result, when he was formulating his general theory, he dropped into his equations something called the “cosmological constant.” It was designed to arbitrarily counter the effects of gravity.

Typically, history books tend to forgive Einstein for this lapse but in reality, it was a terrible piece of scientific work … and he knew it.

Fortunately, Vesto Slipher at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona was taking spectrographic readings of distant stars and noticed a Doppler shift. That proved, beyond any doubt, that the universe was NOT static. The stars were moving away from Earth, which implied an expansionary condition. This was simply astounding and reversed all conventional thinking about a fixed universe.

Unfortunately, Edwin Hubble took all the credit for this remarkable discovery. It is what propelled him into becoming the most outstanding astronomer of the 20th century. (Maybe more on him later since he had such an inflated view of his importance.)

Now, however, flash back to a young Einstein and we find he was a mere assistant clerk in the Swiss patent office. He had no university affiliations, no access to a lab and only a modest library at the patent office.

He had been rejected for an assistant teaching position and was passed over for promotion until “he learned more about machine technology.”

He had a lot of spare time, which he used to gaze out his window and just think.

Then in 1905, he published a series of five scientific papers, of which three, according to C.P. Snow, “were among the greatest in the history of physics.”

The first would earn Einstein a Nobel Prize. The second provided proof that atoms DID exist – a fact that had been in dispute.

The third simply changed the world.

To learn more, read “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson (2007).

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Here’s Why Shakespeare Might Be a Part of You

William Shakespeare’s The Poems of Shakespeare [Cosway-Style Binding], London: William Pickering, 1837, realized $2,868 at an October 2009 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman on the atom from his “Six Easy Pieces” lecture series:

“If, in some cataclysm, all scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?

“I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.”

Personally, I would have a bit of a problem rebuilding if that was the extent of all knowledge! And, although I can use more than one sentence, the following may not add enough for you to do it either.

To begin, atoms are simply everywhere and constitute every single thing. Not only stuff like a wall or your refer, but the air in between.

They combine to make molecules and molecules combine to make elements. Chemists think of molecules rather than elements just as writers think in terms of words and not letters.

Molecules are numerous, beyond comprehension. A cubic centimeter of air (the size of a sugar cube) contains 45 billion-billion molecules. Now think about how many sugar cubes it would take to replace all the matter in the universe. Multiply that number by 45 billion, then multiply that by another billion. Well, you get the idea. And, of course, atoms are by definition more abundant than molecules.

Atoms are also very durable and have been around sooo long that every atom in your body has passed thru several stars and been a part of millions of organisms. They are so anatomically numerous and vigorously recycled at our death that it has been suggested 1 billion of my atoms (and yours) were once part of Shakespeare … and of Ghengis Kahn. An odd thought, but statistically probable (not just possible).

Atoms are also tiny … very, very tiny. It is hard to describe just how tiny, but here is a crude attempt:

A millimeter thickness is like comparing a single sheet of paper to the height of the Empire State Building. Got it?

Well, atoms are only one-ten millionth as thick as a millimeter. That is tiny.

When we die, our atoms will simply disassemble and move on to become other things like a rock, another human being, or a Doritos tortilla chip. It is somehow comforting to know that someday, I will be a Doritos chip rather than a Pringles.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].