What Nature Separated, Explorers Brought Together

A letter Albert Einstein sent to Charles Hapgood in November 1954 sold for $3,125 at an April 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

To my knowledge, the only trained geologist I have met is Simon Winchester. He is now a successful journalist and author. Most of the people I know tend to look up or back (in history) as opposed to downward. I assume most geologists are average, normal people, except when I read about 20th century geology and the difficulties they had in reaching anything close to a consensus about Earth.

As early as 1912, a German – Alfred Wegener – developed the theory that the continents had come together in a single landmass before it drifted apart (he called it Pangaea). However, virtually everyone else argued that continents moved up and down, but definitely not “sideways.” They developed elaborate theories to explain all the evidence.

Just before he died in 1955, Albert Einstein enthusiastically endorsed a theory by geologist Charles Hapgood, who wrote the book “Earth’s Shifting Crust: A Key to Some Basic Problems of Earth Science.” Hapgood systematically debunked the theory of continental drift and dismissed anyone who believed it as “gullible.” When it was finally realized that the whole crust of the Earth was in motion – and not just the continents – it took a while to settle on a new name.

It wasn’t until 1968, when the Journal of Geophysical Research published an article by three American seismologists, that the new science was dubbed plate tectonics. Still, as late as 1980, one in eight geologists didn’t believe in plate-tectonic theory. It is not clear if there are any continental drift-deniers left, but we know for sure that the pre-1492 American and Eurasian ecosystems existed in complete isolation for thousands of years. The arrival of the first Europeans in North and Central America reconnected them and started what was to become known as the great Columbian Exchange.

Lives and economies that had evolved gradually over centuries were suddenly transformed by the influx of new crops, animals, technology and pathogens. Many of the effects were unforeseen and generally misunderstood by both American Indians and Europeans; but once the first landing occurred, massive changes were inexorably under way. One small example is that 60 percent of all crops grown in the world today originated in the Americas. A more immediate and devastating impact was the introduction of new diseases into the Americas that wiped out hundreds of thousands of Indians who had no biological defenses against small pox, measles, malaria, chickenpox and yellow fever.

The dramatic and irrevocable changes brought about on both sides of the Atlantic by the Columbian Exchange continued to shape lives for centuries, just as the movement of the Earth’s crust shapes our lives today by earthquakes, ocean movements and other ecological events.

We live in and on things that will continue to change as our televisions remind us every day. The longer-term changes are still being debated and are now politicized to the point where prudent policies are paralyzed. It must be something in our DNA.

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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Atom Bombs: From Pop Culture Novelty to Unimaginable Threat

A First Day Cover postmarked July 28, 1955, and signed by six crew members of the Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, went to auction in April 2005.

By Jim O’Neal

As North Korea continues to relentlessly pursue offensive atomic weapons – perhaps a weaponized missile delivered by a submersible vessel – the world is perplexed over how to respond. U.S. sanctions are ignored, China is permissive, complicit or both, and South Korea and Japan grow more anxious as the United Nations is irrelevant, as usual.

Concurrently, polls indicate that attitudes about the use of atomic bombs against Japan to end World War II are less favorable. But this was not always the case.

At first, most people had approved the use of the bomb on Hiroshima, followed by a second bomb a few days later on Nagasaki. They agreed the bombs hastened the end of the war and saved more American lives than they had taken from the Japanese. Most people shared the view of President Truman and the majority of the defense establishment: The bomb was just an extension of modern weapons technology.

There had even been some giddiness about the Atomic Age. The bar at the National Press Club started serving an “atomic cocktail.” Jewelers sold “atomic earrings” in the shape of a mushroom cloud. General Mills offered an atomic ring and 750,000 children mailed in 15 cents and a cereal box top to “see genuine atoms split to smithereens.”

But the joking masked a growing anxiety that was slowly developing throughout our culture. In the months after it ended the war, the bomb also began to effect an extraordinary philosophical reassessment and generate a gnawing feeling of guilt and fear.

Then, the entire Aug. 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker magazine was devoted to a 30,000-word article by John Hersey entitled, simply, “Hiroshima.” The writer described the lives of six survivors before, during and after the dropping of the bomb: a young secretary, a tailor’s wife, a German Jesuit missionary, two doctors and a Japanese Methodist minister.

The power of Hersey’s reporting, devoid of any melodrama, brought human content to an unimaginable tragedy and the response was overwhelming. The magazine sold out. A book version became a runaway bestseller (still in print). Albert Einstein bought 1,000 copies and distributed them to friends. An audience of millions tuned in to hear the piece, in its entirety, over the ABC radio network.

After Hersey’s book with its explicit description of the atomic horror (“Their faces wholly burned, their eye sockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down on their cheeks”), it was impossible to ever see the bomb as just another weapon. The only solace was that only America possessed this terrible weapon.

However, it soon became clear that it was only a matter of time before the knowledge would spread and atomic warfare between nations would become possible. People were confronted for the first time of the real possibility of human extinction. They finally grasped the fact that the next war could indeed be what Woodrow Wilson had dreamed the First World War would be – a war to end all wars – although only because it would likely end life itself.

Let’s hope our world leaders develop a consensus about the Korean Peninsula (perhaps reunification) before further escalation. It is time to end this threat, before it has a chance to end us.

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].

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].