Author: stevecampbell1955

The Grim Lessons of Charles Whitman

SteveTrucker2  Homepage   UT+Tower

Your Humble Narrator is not on his normal literary “turf” and hastens to get back to more light-hearted prose.  He hopes his loyal readers will excuse this short tour past the “dark side”.  The story may be found at  Click the link below the next paragraph.

This story has haunted me since I was a student at UT Austin. The “incident” happened some years before I arrived, but it still hung over the campus like the shadow of a certain Clock  Tower.  It was brought to the forefront of my conscience in 2006 in a Texas Monthly article on the 40th anniversary.  From that and what I already knew, there seemed to be some lessons that we had not taken to heart. The idea incubated in my scatter-brain mind for the next 12 years…

The Grim Lessons of Charles Whitman



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Over The Road   


Cover Letter with links               My Website

A Long Time Ago in Argentina

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[In 2002, I was back working in Houston, but I was still sent to  South America, occasionally.  But, this particular post has to do with a private trip we made first to Peru where my wife’s family lives.  It was a convenient place to let the the two young sons visit their aunt,  uncle and grandmother while the wife and I sneaked off to Argentina for a week. the prices I quote seem ridiculously cheap and not all of that is inflation from then to now – as explained in the text.  I was writing “Ten Things You Should Know When Visiting (Blank)” articles, in those  days and I just hit a big vein of them in a long-untouched directory copied faithfully from computer to  computer over the years.

I can’t find any pictures of this particular trip and I think we were in a video camera phase at that time.  We still have the videotapes somewhere, but we never look at them.  Someday we will transfer those to digital media and look at the young strangers who took that trip so long ago.  Meanwhile I have scarfed a couple of “file photos” just to break up the text.  I have put in a few modern remarks which are set off from the 16-year-ago prose with brackets [like this].

  Ten Thing You Should Know When Visiting Buenos  AiresBuenosAires9deJulio

  1. The streets and freeways are quite clean, which is unusual in this part of the world. As in many cities there are “recyclers” who comb the garbage for anything of residual value but, astoundingly, they clean up after themselves with brooms and extra garbage bags.  This is probably because the Argentinos like to think of themselves as displaced Europeans.  I myself have higher ambitions than to be a European. [With no offence to my European friends intended – this was before I met y’all 😉 ]. The hotel even has European bathroom fixtures, complete with bidet.  Do you know anyone who actually uses a bidet?…’cause I don’t.


  1. The streets are about a bus and two cabs wide and that’s what one usually finds in the width of the street. That is, except for Avenida Nueve de Julio [Ninth of July Avenue] which is the widest in the world, they say.*   The sidewalks are about three feet wide – barely enough room for two to pass without stepping into the street.  And ye had best not, if ye want keep yerself in one piece, ’cause the buses zoom by, with inches to spare, at ridiculous speeds.

*[That’s it in the picture above.  If you see 10 pictures of Buenos Aires at random, five of those have this street in them]

  1. The buses themselves are 80 cents (of a Peso) and the machines you drop your coins into actually make change. Best to get a seat if you can’t reach the grab bars, ’cause these vehicles spend most of their time in robust acceleration followed by vigorous braking. For variety there are sudden lurches to the left and right.  I never found a bus schedule but the hotel staff, store clerks and food servers are most helpful in this subject, as many of them probably depend on busses.  There is a Metro (a subway, I mean to say), but I didn’t manage to see any of it.


  1. As usual, no one is marching in the street, screaming anti-American threats. The anti-American mindset exists mostly in the imagination of the press (that includes the US media), some perpetual malcontents who manage to get a lot of face time on TV and a few asinine dictators who would be universally hated in their own country if they could not whip up an anti-American frenzy as a diversion. I won’t mention names but two of  them rhyme with Bastro and Busien.  If you’re still worried about it, pretend to be from New Zealand.  Most folks don’t even know where the heck that is.  If you meet an actual Kiwi, you may have some explaining to do.


  1. The best bet for changing money is the ATM’s with several networks. They’re called “multicajeros” (mool tea kah hair ose…accent on hair).  Look for the symbol of your particular network.   You get the latest exchange rate and they are to be found in banks with armed guards standing politely about, the better not to worry about muggers.  I never have any trouble with muggers, but I am six foot three and probably weigh twice  what you do.  There are lots of armed guards in Latin American countries and they are, generally speaking, polite because they have a strong sense of self-confidence.  It has to do with the Uzi and the flack jacket.  It pays to be just as polite to them.


  1. Prices are (by law, apparently) quoted in Pesos. The symbol for Pesos is “$”.  You might have thought that was for dollars.  Apparently it began with a really skinny “P” over a regular uppercase “S”.   When, rarely, prices are quoted in US Dollars, a “U” is added before the “$” and an extra “$” is appended.  Like this:  U$$   Prices are, to say the least, astounding just now (July 2002).  Some examples of ridiculously affordable purchases: Lunch for two in a rather pleasant sidewalk cafe consisting of steak and side dish with beer and dessert:  $20  (remember – that’s  U$$ 5.63).  High quality leather jacket: $400 (about U$$ 113).  Tango show, dinner and drinks for two in a really plush dinner theater:  $220  ( U$$ 62).  I got a hand-out for a burger joint that priced the bacon double cheesburger with fries and a drink at less than one US dollar.  I was too busy at really plush dinner theaters and rather pleasant sidewalk cafes to actually eat there.


  1. One thing you never make fun of in Argentina is the Tango. Don’t worry – I didn’t learn this by painful experience, but rather by simple observation. The Tango started about a hundred years ago as a saloon dance and has evolved into a refined art form that is most highly regarded.  There are “Tango Shows” in elegant theatres where the dancers on stage perform energetic, kick intensive maneuvers that would quickly start a fist-fight on any pubic dance floor.  Instead of the original one guy with a guitar, there is an orchestra with a string section, a piano and two accordions.


[I remember this fountain, which we saw on a bus tour.  That must be the Capitol Dome behind it.  Another  bus tour took us to a Dude Ranch where Gauchos did horse-riding tricks and there was a period house with clothes and furniture of the Early 20th Century.  It was there I met the only black  man in Argentina (a tourist from Nigeria, it turns out).  He asked me to take a picture of him with one of the hats in the exhibit.  When he put it on, the “spittin’ image”  of Nat King Cole looked back at me.  It was quite a vivid impression, like having seen a ghost.  You  can tell, because I remember it to this day in 2018.  The picture below is the real Nat, of course.  That man could sing circles around most vocalists of today.  He was also an accomplished piano and banjo player.  If you can find it on Netflix or at the Redbox, watch the movie “Cat Ballou”]


  1. Another thing (or rather, person) you don’t make fun of is Eva Peron. A First Lady of renown in the fifties, she has achieved a status of near-sainthood. If you can get through a day in Buenos Aires and not see a picture of Evita, then either you were not paying attention and are in serious danger of being hit by the busses I mentioned, or you don’t know what Eva Peron looked like.


  1. There are several pedestrian streets referred to as peatonales (Pea at tone Al ess…accent on Al). These are of course lined with “retail opportunities”.  Evidently there is a long tradition of “barkers” (I don’t have a Spanish equivalent for that) who stand at strategic spots and talk up their establishment and hand out…well…hand-outs.  There are also people who want to “talk” to you for just a minute (I’m not sure what they’re up to and I don’t want to find out).  And, of  course, the depressingly common occurrence of street beggars.


  1. Don’t call home from the hotel, because they are not participating in the “ridiculously affordable” phenomenon – not on phone calls, anyway. There are telecom shops called “Locutorios” (Low coo tore ee ohs…accent on tore) where you are assigned a phone booth with a chair (they want you to be comfortable). Rates are usually posted on the front door and are reasonable.  You make all the calls you like, your accumulating charges appear on a digital readout and in the end you pay at the counter.

Buenos Aires is in the midst of a short window of opportunity for affordable travel. Argentina was well-known as an expensive place before and  I expect it will return to that status when the economy recovers.  I reckon I’ll check the news for the latest country to declare bankruptcy before I plan my next vacation.

Hasta Luego,


Sales, Promotion and Marketing

Steven B. Campbell                              Return to Cover Letter

Some time ago, I took an assignment in Venezuela.  The position involved on-site data processing at the field location – a leading-edge innovation at the time.  From the start, I was involved in marketing, promoting and convincing clients that they wanted data processing in the field.  This had the side effect of a higher level of quality control which promoted our position in acquisition contracts. The software was called MicroMAX.  I demonstrated and promoted its use in the field on the several crew in Venezuela and trained client personnel (Maraven) along with Western operators who went on to successful contracts for field processing on many crews in South America.

Much of the training and marketing was carried out in Spanish, as one might expect.  The projects were on the northern slope of the Andean mountain range as it passes to the South of Lake Maracaibo.  After a year there, we were transferred to Eastern Venezuela near Maturin.  There, we participated in one of the first 3D Projects in South America.  We developed 3D quality control procedures that positioned us for more and better 3D contracts.  Later, we continued with the same sort of marketing and promotion in Bolivia.

At Grant Geophysical, we promoted the use of  MicroMAX and other QC and field processing software.  Myself and my colleagues there were instrumental  in the development of MESA and OMNI survey  design packages.  We also promoted and marketed products like ProMAX, EDS Verify and Census, in the US, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

At Petroleum Geo Services, as a part of the Geophysical Support Group, I marketed their seismic source modeling package MASOMO which is unparalleled in accurate modeling and backed up by exhaustive field testing.  In later years, I was the “go-to” expert on MASMO and marketed the package and instructed operators of other contractors (CGG for example) and major oil companies (ExxonMobil,e.g.).  I was also frequently called upon to demonstrate data to clients (Anadarko, for example) using the PGS 3D visualization package called holoSeis.  We also marketed and executed feasibility and design studies to major clients (PEMEX, Woodside, e.g.).

While others might have ”closed the deals”, my work in promotion, marketing and instruction was crucial in making the sales of software and services, for well over twenty years.

Steve Campbell                                            Return to Cover Letter


A Nice Place to Visit, But…

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Life is in fact a very rare phenomenon, despite the fact that it surrounds most of us (in no small part with the “rest of us”).  You might think it to be common, but that is because you are a part of the commonality of it all.  Life is not common – outside of our planet, where it is common.

Some points about the rarity:

  1. The Earth is in the “Goldilocks Zone” (GZ) which means that it is at the right distance to be “not too hot and not too cold” for life. This is a well-known and rather trite fact to quote, but nevertheless true.  Depending on who you ask, the planets Venus and Mars are also in the GZ but apparently lifeless, thus far.
  2. The Earth is thought to have its relatively fixed spin axis because of the stabilizing influence of the moon. Other planets, without such large satellites are known to have violent shifts in inclination making environments hostile to life.  Mars has been suspected of major axial shifts on a short (geological) time scale, for example. Such a large satellite (relative to the planet it orbits – its “primary”) is a very rare condition and the only other example in the Solar System is the Pluto / Charon double planet.  And that planet -while extremely spin-stable, is way to Hell and Gone outside the GZ.
  3. Neither Mars nor Venus has a magnetic field like that of Earth which protects life from massive Solar and Cosmic radiation. It turns out that little Mercury does have a global magnetic field, but it’s hot dry surface is covered by a pitiful excuse for an atmosphere with not much more than vanishing small amounts of hydrogen and helium.  And the bare, igneous rocks of Mercury are basking in the glaring sunlight that is more than four times as intense as that experienced by Earth.
  4. The stable, near circular orbits of the planets that are common in our solar system are not so common in detected planets around other stars (Exoplanets).
  5. We have studied the Solar System extensively and know at least that conditions for life are extremely rare and Life has not yet been shown to exist anywhere else but on our own Earth.
  6. It stands to reason that intelligent life is even more scarce.  I submit to you that it is so rare as to be vanishingly small.

 When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth

When I was young (that was back in the Cretaceous Era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth), very little was known of what lay beyond that same Earth, even within our own Solar System.  It was thought that conditions for Life probably existed on Venus and almost certainly on Mars.

Seasonal changes on Mars that we now know to be dust patterns were taken as sure signs of life. We are now accustomed to sharp clear images of the planets thanks to space probes and extensive image processing of telescope photos.  What was available in the early Sixties was not much more than grainy, very low-resolution pictures.  As far as Mars was concerned, the expectation of life there was still active right up until the first fly-by images came from Mariner 4 on July 14, 1964.

Atlantis Region on Mars - Mariner 4
Actual Mariner 4 Image of Mars from 1964.  Note the linear artifacts and the extremely  low resolution.       Photo Credit: NASA

 Those images showed a moon-like, crater-covered surface and the atmosphere was confirmed to be a vanishingly thin layer of carbon dioxide. Those who had held out hope for life on Mars were bitterly disappointed.  I know because I was there and this was not at all what I had been led to expect.  I am not pointing fingers, you understand.  Virtually everybody – scientists included – expected to see something like the early images of desert areas of Earth from space – with, maybe, some cactus plants (roadrunners and coyotes optional).  But, these Doses of Reality really were indistinguishable from the airless, lifeless moon and a bitter disillusionment to all.  It happened that Mariner 4 did not see the more interesting parts of Mars that later restored some (diminished) hope for life when Mariner 9 images began to arrive.

Probes to Venus sent back even worse news. Cloud-covered Venus had been expected to be a very warm, rainy, damp or perhaps ocean-covered place.  All of those scenarios were explored in stories and novels, back in the Golden Age of Science Fiction.  If that “Golden Age” phrase puzzles you, go and read these authors:  Heinlein, Azimov, Clarke and Bradbury.

Earth observations had already begun to indicate harsh conditions. Measurements from probes revealed that planet to be a quite literal “Hell-hole” with a hot, thick, dry and “crushing” atmosphere that could melt lead.  Liquid water – long thought to be a Life “prerequisite” is just a busted myth on Venus.

Actual surface image from Venus by the Soviet Lander Venera in 1975.  The probe died not long after this. The vertical “artifacts” are data packets that occasionally interrupted  the image transmission.  Data storage in those days was measured in kilobytes and so things had to be done in “near-real-time”.

While Jupiter does possess a magnetic field, it is also surrounded by intense belts of radiation that are trapped in that field.  In this regard, I have found some quotes that throw doubt on the chances of hospitable environments on Jupiter’s moon Europa – long thought (after the Voyager probes, that is) to be a good candidate for life.

Europa. The lack of craters and the linear features (we call ‘em “cracks” where I come from) suggest active Geology.  Some have suggested that the contrasting dark colors of said cracks suggest biology.  That may be grasping at straws, IMHO

Some of those doubts:

A Probe called Pioneer 10 was actually the first to encounter Jupiter and there was some concern about radiation levels:

“The level of radiation at Jupiter was ten times more powerful than Pioneer’s designers had predicted, leading to fears that the probe would not survive; however, with a few minor glitches, it managed to pass through the radiation belts, saved in large part by the fact that Jupiter’s magnetosphere had “wobbled” slightly upward at that point, moving away from the spacecraft. However, Pioneer 11 did lose most images of Io, as the radiation had caused its imaging photo polarimeter to receive a number of spurious commands. The subsequent and far more technologically advanced Voyager spacecraft had to be redesigned to cope with the massive radiation levels.”   (Magnetosphere of Jupiter, n.d.)

And then there was this, which hammered fifteen more nails into the Europa/Life Coffin::

“The radiation level at the surface of Europa is equivalent to a dose of about 5400 mSv (540 rem) per day,[40] an amount of radiation that would cause severe illness or death in human beings exposed for a single day.:[41]

  1. The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, Revised ed., US DOD 1962, pp. 592–593

You might argue that there is a “Goldilocks” Zone deep under Europa’s Ice in a Salty Sea of liquid water.  Probably more liquid water than on all of the Earth. The miles of ice and water might well protect from radiation.  The idea that life could exist there is reasonable, but completely unproven. But is that someplace you want to spend your retirement?

There was also a very thorough work on the radiation dose expected for Apollo astronauts while passing through the Van Allen Radiation Belts (VABR) on the way to moon landings.  It concluded that the dose of radiation was relatively tolerable – mostly because the men did not spend much time there.

So far, places where Earth-like conditions exist are:  Earth.


  1. Almost all “Environments” off-Earth are without significant atmospheres, with way too much atmosphere or under miles of ice, submerged in salty seas.
  2. Many “Environments” off-Earth also tend to be radioactive enough to kill you in a day or two.
  3. None of these so called “Environments” has actually been shown to harbor any kind of life.
  4. In every case, these are places that many adventurous people would like to visit. But, without bringing along a complete life support system with you – including when you are “out for a walk” – they are no place you could “live”.

And Then We Get to Titan

Titan is the largest moon of Saturn.  It is the third largest moon in the Solar System and larger than planets Mercury and Pluto.  And it is just lousy with Earth-like qualities.  It has a very dense atmosphere that exceeds the Earth’s sea-level pressure by about 50%.


Looking on the Brightside of Titan
Titan in visible light. Photo credit: NASA

This first image is pretty much what Voyager 1 saw during its pass by Saturn, arranged especially to look at Titan.  It has been known that Titan has an atmosphere since that fact was discovered by Gerald Kuiper (rhymes with “hyper”) in 1944.  It became obvious then that to see under this veil of clouds would require more than the cameras aboard the twin Voyager spacecraft.  Mostly for that reason was Voyager 2 was cleared (after the successful encounter of Voyager 1 with the satellite) to ignore Titan and continue on a trajectory that would take it to Uranus and Neptune.  Had Voyager 1 failed at Titan, Voyager 2 would have followed its brother out of the plane of the Solar System, never having had the opportunity to see the last two Giant planets Uranus and Neptune.  Titan got such priority because of its atmosphere which is unique for satellites of any planet.

Titan in Infrared light.  The colors here are – of course – “made up” since you cannot (nor can I – so don’t feel bad) see in infrared light. Photo credit: NASA

This second image is from the later Cassini probe that was sent to orbit Saturn and (knowing what Voyager could not see) included an infrared camera which – with some filtering -could see down to the Titanian surface.

While there have been many learned speculations that an exotic form of life might exist that “breathes” hydrogen and exhales methane and “eats” acetylene, none has as yet been detected.  “Conventional” Life-as-we-know-it (LAWKI) does these things with oxygen, carbon dioxide and glucose, respectively.

There are indeed Methanogens (i.e., Life that makes methane) on Earth but all of them use liquid water as their “solvent” and none use hydrocarbon liquids as would be the case for the imagined Titanian lifeforms.

I have found no references that indicate the radiation environment is a problem at Titan. This large moon of Saturn is expected to have a subsurface ocean as Europa is thought to have, with the same speculations of “conventional” lifeforms and the same problems to be expected.

Titan is covered with hydrocarbons.  These are compounds of hydrogen and carbon that would be called “petroleum” here on Earth.  Methane rains down out of the atmosphere and heavier hydrocarbons – solids at that temperature – cover much of the surface resembling sand dunes.  These “organic” compounds that have that name because they are -on Earth at least – generally made by lifeforms.  I have not read any speculations that Titan’s organics are life-generated.

Titan by virtue of its distance from the sun to Saturn (being 10X that for Earth) receives sunlight arriving there at one percent of what the Earth enjoys.  The cloud cover that Titan is notorious for reduces that to one tenth of one percent. Photosynthesis would seem very unlikely.  That contributes to a big problem with the idea of Life on Titan.  Namely, the temperature, which is so very cold (call it -200 F) that liquid water is decidedly out of the question.

There are, in fact “Great-Lake-size” bodies of liquid on the surface, but they are composed of mostly methane (CH4) – which on Earth is the main component of what’s called Natural Gas.  As mentioned earlier, methane is a minor component of Titan’s atmosphere, just as water vapor is in our own Earthly atmosphere and it precipitates to the surface like same.

That would seem to wrap it up for extra-terrestrial life.  Several possibilities for environments which show a potential for life, but no evidence that such life exists.

 Whatever lifeforms we see fit to deposit…

(from Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan, in reference to the “Genesis Project”)

The surface of Titan, photographed by the Huygens
Lander on Jan 14, 2005. Photo Credit: NASA

Titan’s atmosphere is composed of mostly nitrogen with about 5% methane near ground level with a trace of free hydrogen.   While Earth’s atmosphere is similar, being 80% Nitrogen – the remainder consisting mostly of Oxygen with a few trace gasses.  Again, the ground-level air pressure exceeds that which you   are currently experiencing – even as you read.

This makes Titan is the only place where walking around outdoors without a space suit might be possible.

There are a few problems with that idea, though.

  • Titan is extremely cold and would require the Walker to bundle up in arctic gear. Heavy-duty arctic gear.
  • This Pedestrian would be breathing from an air tank – like a SCUBA diver. There is no free oxygen in the atmosphere. Let’s say that you use a re-breather and don’t exhaust any oxygen into the atmosphere.  Probably best considering the methane.
  • That methane (known to drizzle out of the haze you see in the distance) might require a raincoat over all that arctic gear. I doubt you would want to be soaked with evaporating methane when you go inside – where you will definitely have oxygen around.
  • The ground where the Huygens probe landed was described as comparable to wet clay. I can’t vouch for the stability or traction achievable on such a surface. Water ice would not be a problem, since at that temperature it is indistinguishable from rock. But those hydrocarbons that cover the surface are much closer to their melting points and could pose a slip hazard.  Other places – who knows?
  • Don’t let the picture fool you, it will be dark. That photo was taken with a sensitive research instrument. Remember that Titan orbits the planet Saturn, which is ten times as far from the Sun as the Earth.  Only one percent of Earthly sunlight reaches Titan and only one tenth of that is able to penetrate the clouds.  A moon-lit night on Earth might be the very best level of illumination you could expect.
  • You would need artificial lighting, especially through the roughly eight days of darkness when the sun is below the local horizon.
  • That brings up electrical generation. Solar panels would  be useless in the dimly lit haze. While fierce winds were measured during the descent of Huygens through the atmosphere, surface winds are likely  to be intermittent and not particularly strong.  So, you won’t want to  depend on windmills for power.  The probe was powered by batteries, which died after about 90 minutes.  No, you will be taking your own power supply to Titan and it will be nuclear in nature – something like a radio-isotope generator.  Every probe that made it past Jupiter yet has used such “nukes” for power.


Indigenous Life in the Solar System – once thought so likely – has been shown to be non-existent as far as we know.  This is despite decades of intense research toward finding such life.

There is not much to offer for Human occupation “off-Earth” , either.  Unless you want to live life completely indoors, surrounded by radiation shielding or in a space suit (much like being “indoors”)  Titan is pretty much it.

Having found this one special second place in the Solar System where some semblance of normal human activity is indeed possible, the list of activities is rather short. You won’t be farming.  Astronomy is out, but if you happen to be on the side of Titan that faces Saturn, that ringed planet might be barely visible through the haze.  Hiking is good and there might be some spectacular landscapes (not at the Huygens landing zone, I’ll admit).  Night-vision goggles might be appropriate.

There is one aspect might make it all worthwhile.  Titans gravity is a bit less than that of our Moon.  About 1/6th of Earth.  That combined with the thick atmosphere should make human-powered flight possible.  Not just possible, but easy!  Even if all your cold-weather clothes, SCUBA gear and “wings” weigh as much as you do, you  would still have only one third of your weight on Earth.

There is a sub-culture of misinformed people who  think that Humanity’s only salvation will be to move to “another planet”.  These folks tend to be against things like fossil fuels and nuclear power.  Ironically, if Titan (about the best you can find) is your “other planet”, you will be surrounded by petroleum and using nukes for electricity – in bitter cold and perpetual (more-or-less) darkness.

But you could fly!

Ex Scientia, Veritas,



Star Trek II quote:   “Instead of a dead moon, a living, breathing planet, capable of sustaining whatever lifeforms we see fit to deposit on it.” – Dr. Carol Marcus

Van Allen Belt Radiation:

Mars Axis instability:

Venus (Venera):



Radioisotope generator:


Around Robin Hoods Barn in an Electric Car – Part One


SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations

“Around Robin Hoods barn” is a euphemism for an unnecessarily long and complicated journey.

This reporter is not an authority on electric vehicles but he did own and drive one for a couple of years.  Neither can he qualify as an expert on electric power generation but Lawrence Livermore Laboratories has some of those.

This tale has metastasized into a lengthy discourse and will – of necessity – be serialized.

Baker, Ford, Edison and Electric Vehicles:

Electric vehicles are nothing new.  There were electric “carriages” as early as the turn of the nineteenth Century.  They were, as a rule – one-off, custom made vehicles and extremely expensive.  The Baker Motor Vehicle Company did go into a production line situation and made a virtue of the expense of its product. Thomas Edison apparently bought one. Anyone familiar with Jay Leno’s pastime will not be surprised that he owns a Baker.

Figure 0: A Baker Electric, similar to Jay Leno’s

Jay also has an Owen Magnetic which was even more interesting and the creation of George Westinghouse..

But, any industrial-scale production would have to wait until some Titan of Industry took up the task, like say…Henry Ford.

Henry Ford (the original) built and tested several prototypes in the early years of the Twentieth Century.  There is a fascinating article by Daniel Strohl (2010) that detailed the efforts of Ford in that direction.  This piece is spellbinding for anyone afflicted with Nerd-Geek-Trivia Syndrome (NGTS) like yours truly.

Figure 1: Ford’s first prototype electric car circa 1913.  Batteries under the seat and motor in the rear. The steering mechanism is quite interesting.  It seems to be a transverse tiller (at the driver’s left hand) connected by a flexible cable (!) to the front axle.  A bank of batteries under the front seat.

Figure 2:  A second Ford prototype on a model T chassis. The driver in this and the previous photo is electrical engineer Fred Allison. Note the more conventional steering, additional batteries and “Rich Corinthian Leather” of the upholstery.



I lifted three quotes from this.  The first is an understatement of a problem.

Henry Ford:  January 11, 1914, New York Times:

The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of light weight which would operate for long distances without recharging. Mr. Edison has been experimenting with such a battery for some time.

Ford recognized the primary problem, alright.  In fact, he underestimated the problem because it killed the electric car in Ford’s lifetime and is still the big bugaboo haunting EV’s today.

Rather, as Bryan wrote, the downfall of the Edison-Ford electric car came about because :

“Ford demanded the use of Edison’s nickel-iron batteries in the car, and would have no other battery powering this car. Edison’s batteries, however, were found to have very high internal resistance and were thus incapable of powering an electric car under many circumstances. Heavier lead-acid batteries (which would have made the car too ponderous) were substituted behind Henry Ford’s back, and when he found out, he went ballistic. The program quickly fell to the wayside with other projects demanding Henry Ford’s time. According to The Ford Century, Ford invested $1.5 million in the electric car project and nearly bought 100,000 batteries from Edison before the project fell apart.”

The second quote is one of those over-the-top optimistic things that even very smart people sometimes say.

Thomas Edison, May 1914:

“All trucking must come to electricity. I am convinced that it will not be long before all the trucking in New York City will be electric.”

I drove a truck to New York City just last year.  Brooklyn it was.  There were plenty of trucks around – illegally double and triple parked (mine among them!).  Not one of them was electric.

Such optimism can be forgiven in long retrospect.  That sort of thing cannot be helped in uncharted territory of emerging technologies.

According to Click and Clack – the Tappet Bros.

Compared to Car Talk, all other forms of Saturday morning entertainment shrink to insignificance.  Tom (RIP) and Ray Magliozzi clowned around while giving car advice on the air.  They had some uproariously funny bits and advice not just on cars but in all matters of Human Endeavor. People tended not to take them seriously.  But it is important to remember that these two were quite experienced and educated people.

The comment I remember from their show (but cannot track down for a reference) echoed that of Ford, some eighty-odd years before and it went something like this:  “The problem with electric cars is – and always has been- the batteries.”

The Jet Electrica

Direct experience is the best method for learning and I can authoritatively state that the battery problem had not been resolved as of the early years of the Twenty First Century.

Around the turn of the aforementioned Century, I was fascinated by the idea of electric vehicles,  until I eventually bought one.  It was a 1981 Jet Electrica.  These things were built on Detroit products called “gliders” which are complete vehicles, including transmission and drive train, but lacking any engine.  The idea is that the EV company would provide the electric motor.

Figure 3: 1981 Jet Electrica.  This would have been a Mercury Lynx, which was a flashier version of a Ford Escort.

I don’t seem to have any photos of my own of the vehicle that took me to work and back for two years.  This one was grabbed off the internet and turns out to be from the used car ad that I saw when I bought this vehicle for $1000.  I am quite sure that this is the one because after 5 or 10 years, the state of Texas says you need a new license plate (not just “year stickers”) on your car and the one you see on the front in this picture (YZY 11T) is now nailed up on a joist in my garage (this is a tradition in Texas).

That motor is the easy part.  It is tiny compared to the Internal Combustion Engine required to move the “real” (i.e., non-glider) model of this vehicle around.  It was connected directly to the clutch and the driver would start with his foot OFF the clutch, accelerating rapidly to 5 mph and up-shifting from there.  The “acceleration” went flat at about ten mph and I was constantly harassed, passed and hated by cars behind me.  In fourth gear, it was possible to careen down a boulevard at 45 mph.  Once (once!) I took an on-ramp to Interstate 10 and managed to get the poor thing up to 70 mph.  At that time, Scotty called up from Engineering and said, “Cap’n! Ah cahnt gi’ ye waarp five mooch langer!  It’ll tear th’ Enterprise apahrt!  I took the next exit ramp and never again did the Jet see Interstate pavement.  Braking was done in the conventional way, but lacking any benefit from downshifting.  The car stops in 4th with the clutch still engaged and the shift to first is made while motionless.

As Ford learned all  those decades before your humble narrator, it is the batteries that were the big problem. The batteries in the Jet Electrica were similar to the configuration of Ford’s second prototype and used those same type of lead-acid batteries.  There were six six-volt golf cart batteries under the hood.  A fat cable connected them to ten more such units under the hatchback, beneath and iron (SIC) cover what would be the spare tire well and gasoline tank in a normal Lynx. These are directly connected with the passenger compartment, you understand!  That’s a bad idea for several reasons.   There was a 17th battery – this one a 12 volt – that powered the lights and radio.  It was tucked under the left rear fender.

The ten batteries in the back were connected in series by standard battery cables with top-post connectors on each end.  There are a grand total of 16 six volt batteries that supplied a 96 volts to the motor.  The batteries were “deep-draw” that is they hold a lot of charge and will dump large amounts of current quickly – between 100 and 200 amps.  There was more than enough voltage and current to do electric arc welding with just a lead and ground connected to the first positive  and last negative terminal of  the battery pack.  The cable ends tended to loosen as the car’s body flexed when it went over bumps and around turns. The loose connection makes for more resistance and heat is generated.  Least you think it might be minor – that welding example needs temperatures of about 1200 degrees F. Eventually, the battery terminal melts off its base and falls through the plastic case.  Lead acid batteries generate hydrogen gas and it is ignited by the red-hot electrode and subsequently explodes.  This is loud enough to be unnerving and of course breaks the series circuit.  Like cheap Christmas lights, when one goes out, they all go out and you’re walking. Unless you happen to be carrying a long spare cable.  Then you simply connect the battery before the deader to the battery after same and you drive on with a now 90 volt system.  You drive straight home, because another one may blow.

You take the warrantied battery back to Sam’s Club and trade it in for a new one.  Shrug when asked what happened and no need to mention that this is not from a piddley little 36 volt golf cart but a 96 volt “compact car” that weighs 3300 pounds with all these packets of lead aboard.

The solution to that particular problem was to tighten all the battery connections each time I wanted to drive somewhere.  And while we are at it we can open the 48 battery caps and fill them up with distilled water.  Some cells seemed to be “thirstier” than others.  And, best to wear a shop apron or change to work clothes for this labor, since the acid fumes eat your clothing in short order.  The batteries also outgas what I suspect is some compound of sulfuric vapor.  The smell alone was enough to remind me that the batteries contain sulfuric acid (H2SO4) and water (H2O) and chemical reactions going on all the time.  A little knowledge is a scary blessing. In the oil industry, there are “sour wells” that contain Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) and the stuff will kill you pretty quickly at very low concentrations.  I have no doubt that at least a small fraction of the fumes from the battery pack were this deadly compound. There was an exhaust fan in the rear battery compartment that I never managed to make operate.  So, instead I arranged to prop open the hatchback and leave the front windows at least partially down at all times while driving.

The ventilation requirements became a problem in the winter.  The car had a heater that made  the irony factor go right off the scale.  Since heating off the battery bank would potential cut the 40 mile range in half on a cold day, the manufacturers of this electromechanical oddity had put in a gasoline burning heater. These are nothing new.  My father owned a (conventional gasoline powered) car with such a device in about 1950.  So I am told by my Uncle (Mother’s younger Brother) who was able to borrow that vehicle for cold-weather drive-in movie dates.  The gasoline heater was far more efficient than running the engine for heat and made such social functions affordable.

The heater in the Electric had a two-gallon tank, which was cleverly installed behind the filler for the conventional Lynx tank.  The previous owner had not used it and – thinking of all the hydrogen fumes floating around – neither did I.  On really cold mornings I ran an extension cord to the Jet and left a hair dryer running for a half hour or so to warm the cab and defrost the windshield.

This Jet company had the audacity to put a battery powered air conditioner under the back seat.  As purchased its disembodied motor/compressor unit was on the floorboard and that is as close as it got to ever again attempting to cool the car.  Air conditioning in Houston is not for lightweights.  In the 80’s (if I remember correctly) Houston had a new fleet of Grumman busses with their standard air-conditioners.  They quickly surrendered to the Texas Summer and were re-enforced with huge roof-mounted units.  The previous owner of the Lynx / Electrica lived in Dallas, which is worse.  Dallas was enduring a heat wave in the 1990’s and some bus rider with a thermometer complained that the temperature in the bus was 95° F.

The bus driver told him, “Mister, these air conditioners are good for twenty degrees of cooling.  It is 119° outside so you are getting four more degrees of cooling than you have any right to expect   Please go back and sit down”

I have little doubt that A/C would have eaten up the majority of the poor car’s 40-mile range on hot days.

There is a little known aspect of lead-acid batteries that I re-discovered by accident.  I mentioned that the lid over the battery compartment was iron.  It was a least an eighth inch thick and when I first looked under it there was a big sheet of thick acid-eaten cardboard on top of the batteries, which I removed.

Months later, I was replacing the 12 volt battery and swung the new one up and plopped it down on the iron lid. Something said, BOOM!”.

It turns out that if you push down hard on the middle of the iron lid  (perhaps by plopping a 60 pound battery on it), you can manage to bend it down enough to put a direct short across the terminals of one of the six-volt batteries.  This tries to release all the charge once – with explosive results.  The purpose of the thick sheet of cardboard was now obvious.   Fortunately, the lid mostly protected the hapless amateur electrical engineer from the ensuing shrapnel.

The Sam’s Club battery guys knew me by this time and asked no question when I turned in the warranted remains for a new one.  The iron lid thereafter had a hole in it and a new sheet of cardboard was atop the batteries.

I tell you all these horror stories not to condemn the electric car but to convey the state of technology at the time.  Not necessarily that of the mid 2000’s when I drove the thing, but at least in the early 1980’s when the Jet was new.

I will have to  pick up the story later.

Hasta Luego,


Uranus: The Seventh Planet

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(OK, Reader! Wipe that smile off your face and pay attention!)

This poor planet suffers that name that sounds like two words your Proctologist might put together when discussing your condition.  It is laughed at so often that it inspired an article by a man name DeCotis.  I cannot locate the original article but I emailed him the following message.  I hasten to point out that this text – once sent – has been augmented, improved, embellished and even illustrated over the years and especially just prior to the posting of this article.

Mr. DeCotis,

Heartiest congrats to Space Online, Billy Cox and yourself on a wonderful bit of writing about the planet Uranus. I myself have long considered the name of first trans-Saturnian planet to be a problem. This became a matter of importance when, in 1977, it was discovered that, like other Gas Giants, “Neptune-Minus-One” had rings. This was before Voyager 2 got to #7 and was accomplished by watching that planet pass in front of a star. This is called an occultation. Unexpectedly, the star dimmed several times before and after the planet covered it. Only rings could explain it since expecting that many satellites to be lined up in that fashion was improbable in the extreme. 

Knowing me to be an Astronomy student, people would ask me, “Are there really rings around Uranus?”. I understood that as a very personal and offending question and I was tempted to demonstrate the (negative) answer visually, but I refrained.

 Actually, I explained to them about the occultation, just as in the first paragraph – being a thoroughgoing Astronomy nerd.

Figure 1:  The actual light curve
from the 1977 occultation that
detected Uranus’ rings.


There was a Science Fiction B-movie about Uranus which was euphemistically entitled “Journey  to the Seventh Planet” back in the sixties*. Even as a teenager (or especially as a teenager, I suppose) it didn’t take long to figure out what they were avoiding. There was a brief movement (no disgusting pun intended) to transfer the emphasis to the first syllable but you can see (well, hear) immediately that this is a non-starter (“Urine-us”). The name would still be in the bathroom humor department and would only prompt a new round of adolescent jokes.

    It was about then that I decided that “Joe” was a nice enough name. But in order to differentiate whether we were talking about Lewis, Dimaggio, Cool, College, Blow, Six Pack or the Planet, we’d need to specify “Joe the Planet” for every reference. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Joe the Planet, Neptune and Pluto. I’ll grant you it’s a bit awkward at first but it should put an end to the pubescent snickering in astronomy lectures and planetarium shows.


 *I looked it up on YouTube recently – it still stinks.

In college, I was assured by actual Astronomy Professors that this planet’s name is “your ah noose” (accent on “ah” and “noose” rhymes with moose).  The other pronunciations you may have heard are either erroneous or may be attributed to the aforementioned “bathroom humor”.

Now that we have the nomenclature issue dealt with, let’s have a look at the planet itself.


Quoting a NASA planet resource website{1]:

“The first planet found with the aid of a telescope, Uranus was discovered in 1781 by astronomer William Herschel, although he originally thought it was either a comet or a star. It was two years later that the object was universally accepted as a new planet, in part because of observations by astronomer Johann Elert Bode.

William Herschel tried unsuccessfully to name his discovery Georgium Sidus after King George III. Instead the planet was named for Uranus, the Greek god of the sky, as suggested by Johann Bode.”

So, it’s “Bode’s ill” – so to speak.  Don’t blame poor Herschel for the double entendre.  Nor his sister Caroline who joined the musician turned astronomer and accomplished many discoveries of her own:

“Caroline assisted Herschel until his death.  She discovered eight comets. She also discovered several deep-sky objects and was the first woman to be given a paid scientific position…”

Early Observation

There was not much to see.  Even in the most powerful “backyard” telescopes – as late as the 1980’s Uranus was a small dim pale blueish green dot.  A “professional” telescope of that era would be required to resolve the largest satellite, Titania as a featureless point of light.  Even in those elaborate instruments, Uranus maintained its elusive nature.

“Even through large telescopes the planet often appears fuzzy and indistinct. Brightness variations are sometimes reported, the likely result of changes in the planet’s atmosphere.”  [2]


Figure 2:  Uranus through a large “backyard” telescope.

Below is that table of planetary statistics that readers may have seen before.

PlanetaryStatisticsTable 1: Statistics for the Planets


The seventh planet is 19 times the Earth’s distance from the Sun.


Figure 3: Simple “Visual aid” to depict the distance of Uranus (big green dot) from the Sun (Yellow asterisk) as compared to that of the Earth (little blue dot).  Only the distances are to scale – not the sizes of the Sun and planets.

In size, it is 31, 763 miles in diameter (four and a half times that of Earth).  Like all the Giant Planets, it rotates quickly (once every 17 hours and 12 minutes) and it is much less dense than the “Rocky Planets” like Earth.

The atmosphere is hydrogen and helium with some methane.  Deeper down, there is a “mantle” of water, ammonia and methane ices above a rocky core.  You see in figure 3A that they have not labeled the thicknesses of these layers.  That is a sure sign that they don’t really have a clue what those numbers should be!

Internal-structure-of-UranusFigure 3A: Internal Structure of Uranus

A notable unique feature of Uranus is the orientation of its spin axis relative to the plane of its orbit (see “obliquity in orbit” in the table).  In the Uranian summer and winter the axis of rotation of the planet points almost directly at the Sun – resulting in one hemisphere in constant sunlight and the other in darkness.  This is thought to have been caused by Uranus’ collision with a large planetoid late in its formation.  The diagram below explains the situation.


Figure 4:  Seasons of Uranus


Uranus was visited by a space probe only once.  It was the third stop on what was called at the time “The Grand Tour”.  As it happened, there was an alignment of the outer planets in the 70’s and 80’s such that it would be possible to use gravity assisted orbital adjustments (“the slingshot effect”) to make it possible for a space probe to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in one long and carefully managed trajectory.  The Voyager 2 Spacecraft did exactly that and arrived in the area of Uranus in 1986.

The Voyager 2 Spacecraft        

The Voyager probes each had a main antenna that was capable of constant communications with the Earth.  This necessitated what is called a “scan platform” that held the instruments that need precise pointing and moved independently of the antenna.  The constant contact was needed because data storage was actually on a ½ inch, 8 track magnetic tape with a total capacity of about ½ Megabyte and a top baud rate of 56 kilobits per second (2).  That’s what I said – “Stone Knives and Bear Skins!” – so, real-time transmission was required for image data.”  Voyager was – despite my demeaning reference – quite advanced at the time and its imagery and other data are still quite impressive. They made the most of the technology at hand.

The image below depicts the identical Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 Spacecraft. (4) The dish antenna is 3.7 meters in diameter (12 feet, 2 inches) across.  The arm extending to the right contains the main experiments and the imaging “scan platform”.  The left arm holds the three radioisotope thermoelectric generators that power the probe that provided the electric power out in the dark reaches where solar panels would be quite ineffective.  The gold disk on the “body” is the famous Record with messages and images of Earth for anyone “out there”.    Carl Sagan, whose enthusiasm for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) was well-known had thought to perhaps include a plaque with a message engraved upon it as had been done with the Pioneer space probes.  This Record (an actual grooved phonograph Long Playing (LP) disc – only metal, not vinyl) was the idea of Frank Drake.  SETI Nerds will recognize Drake as the inventor of the “Drake Equation” which is a formula to calculate how many extraterrestrial civilizations there might be.  That’s Frank in the inset, with his equation.  I put him there to give scale to the picture.


Figure 5: The Voyager Spacecraft        NASA/NASA website


Figure 6: A Voyager view of Uranus in 1986. 

Even the dedicated planetary scientists had to admit they were disappointed with the rather very bland appearance of the planet.  In trying to describe the feelings of the Voyager team about the mediocrity of it all, Planetary Scientist Heidi Hammel had this to say,  “…poor Uranus…poor Uranus!”.[6]

There had been observations from Earth of clouds in this atmosphere, so what’s the deal?  You will see in the diagram in figure 4 that the solstice – that point in the orbit where one hemisphere is constantly roasting in sunlight – was in 1986.  Just when Voyager happened along.  Later observations were made with (much improved) telescopes in the years surrounding the Equinox of 2007 (see Figure 4) – when most of Uranus has 8 ½ hours sun and 8 ½  hours darkness – “barbeque” mode, as they say.  Those images showed Uranus in its more “flamboyant” mood. Figure 7.


Figure 7:  Uranus near Equinox.  Note the rings (R) – now markedly evident when they are seen edge-on.

It is probably worth noting that the Voyager camera and those of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) are almost certainly quite different in their ranges of wavelengths and sensitivities, so they are not directly comparable.  Nonetheless, we may expect more blandness from “poor Uranus” around the Summer Solstice in 2028.

I should mention that there is a lot more science involved than just the images recorded by Voyager and results from those found new and interesting features, as well. For example, the magnetic field detected is not centered on the planet core and its poles are near the rotational equator.  This was totally unexpected.

The Satellite that “Saved the Show”

One of the major aspects of interest in the Giant planets was the characteristics and history of their satellites.  With Jupiter and Saturn, the space probes entered and left the planetary systems obliquely across the orbits of the moons and could, with luck, come close to several of them for detailed examination.  In the case of Uranus, the moons’ orbits are like circles on the sky and are approached as if in target practice.  The “Grand Tour” scenario of hopping from one outer planet too the next required very specific trajectories past the planets along the way.  That, and the angle of the sun left only one chance of a close approach to a satellite and even that would see only the perpetually lit hemisphere of the smallest of the major moons – Miranda (Figure 7) It could not have been predicted that this would be by far the most interesting of all the moons and the feature we could all point to when asked by non-Nerds why all this expense and effort was spent to go look at a blue-green billiard ball – with no number on it.


Figure 8:  Miranda

Miranda is the smallest (about 300 miles across) of the major satellites and the closest to the planet (roughly 81,000 miles).  It circles Uranus in 1.4 days and always shows the same face to the planet.  This is looking down at the South pole.  In the season when Voyager arrived, this was pretty much all that would have been illuminated.

And, it looks like it has been broken apart and then shoved back together!  Not surprisingly, that is one idea of how it came to look so.

“Scientists disagree about what processes are responsible for Miranda’s features. One possibility is that the moon may have been smashed apart in some colossal collision, and the pieces then haphazardly reassembled. Another, perhaps more likely, scenario is that the coronae are sites of large rocky or metallic meteorite strikes which partially melted the icy subsurface and resulted in episodic periods of slushy water rising to Miranda’s surface and refreezing.”[8]

Uranus has four larger satellites.  The biggest is Titania which is still less than half the diameter of the Earth’s moon.  As mentioned earlier they were not well surveyed in the fly-by, but a map of Titania’s surface appears in figure 9.


Figure 9:  A Map of Titania’s surface.  Again, only about half the surface was illuminated and this is the least boring part of that.

The larger satellite also has some interesting surface features.  I am reminded of my own varicose veins.


  1. The seventh planet turns out to be rather dull and featureless, but only for the Southern Summer. The Spring Equinox brought considerable atmospheric activity after Voyager but now detectable from the improved cameras of the Hubble Space Telescope and other modern observatories.
  2. The satellites of all the Giant Planets all turned out to be far more complex than was first imagined by Earthbound observers. Uranus is no exception.
  3. Uranus still has that unfortunate name (despite my “Joe” recommendation) but we can overlook that because we are all adults, here. Right?…Right?
  4. Update: In all that discussion of the unfortunate moniker, I neglected to mention a sports cheer, popular around the time of the ring discovery.  It goes like this:  “Up Jupiter! Up Saturn!…
    (So much for Adulthood 😉

Hasta Luego,


[1] NASA Photos:!

[2] William Herschel:

[3] Uranus Telescope view:

[4} Voyager details:

[5] Table of Planetary Statistics:

[6] The Farthest: Voyager in Space – Netflix

[7]  Uranus Planetary Factsheet:

[8] Miranda in Depth – NASA:



The Farthest: Voyager in Space

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Netflicks:  The Farthest: Voyager in Space


I don’t want to say that young people today are spoiled by modern conveniences – mostly because it makes me sound like a stereotypical curmudgeon.  But, it is absolutely true and it was true for me as well in those long-ago days when I could be described as “young”.  You, too.   And our parents, and theirs and so on, ad infinitum.  There is only one way to make young people appreciate the technological heritage they have.   The progress from a less complex technology to their time has to be described to them by us involuntary immigrants from the past.

Perhaps only an early-adopter “Space Nerd” from the middle Twentieth Century could explain the early days of the exploration of the Solar System.  That would be Your Humble Narrator and I am stepping up on this occasion to review a Netflick Video about that very subject.  I followed the Voyager missions from their launch in 1977 to the flyby of Neptune in 1989 – and beyond.

Before Voyager

Before there was Voyager, the outer planets were only vaguely known.  In 1977 there had been some probes sent to the outer planets – most notably the Mariner and Pioneer probes, which were not insignificant.  But, this documentary is an appreciation of Voyager – the “Game Changer” in Solar System exploration – and its very momentous accomplishments.  It was the most ambitious and significant exploration of the Solar System of that time and the facts and images gathered are a fundamental part of planetary science to this day.

Because Jupiter is the largest and nearest – at “only” five times the Earth’s distance (One Astronomical Unit (AU)) from the Sun – it was the best known.  Even at that, all that was known was some bands of clouds and a “Great Red Spot”.    We knew that Jupiter had four large moons.  Your average Astronomy Nerd – like Your Humble Narrator – could drag the telescope out of the Garage and show you the Bands and the Spot and the four moons.  He would tell you their names – “Io, Europa, Ganymede and Calisto” – and show you four dots of light surrounding a small dimly striped Jupiter where the Great Red Spot might be barely visible.

The more enthusiastic Nerd will have an even bigger telescope and will almost certainly show you Saturn.  He will twist your arm (literally, if necessary) to show you Saturn!  That is because Saturn is the stunning little toy in the eyepiece that everybody loves to see.  They might look at a picture made by a great observatory and appreciate it, but when they see it in a telescope with their own eye*, it is always a stunning epiphany.  Saturn’s largest moon Titan and a few of the smaller ones are visible in a large amateur ‘scope   About twenty years ago, I showed my mother Saturn and Titan, Rhea and Tethys.  It is a great lumbering 12 inch Dobsonian that has no clock drive to track the planet.  I had to constantly re-adjust the aim and then tell Mom, “Okay – look quick!” and duck out of her way.  She could glimpse Saturn for a scant few seconds until the Earth’s rotation took it out of view.  Then I would step back in to find it again, describe what to look for and where and jump back out of the way.  She was fairly impressed when I told her that very few people on Earth – one in many millions, perhaps – have personally looked through a telescope and seen these.

*With very few exceptions, telescopes are “monocular”.

The next two targets of Voyager Uranus and Neptune were – even with the best telescopes of the day – were still not much more than small indistinct discs of light.

GoingwalkaboutMorseI told you all that so I could tell you to see “The Farthest: Voyager in Space” on Netflix.

The Story of Voyager

The story begins with the engineers who built the thing.  Things, actually – there were two of them.  What they modestly describe is really a miracle of concentrated effort and talent, innovation and adaptation.  Those engineers and planetary scientists that participated in the effort are interviewed, but not in any simple question-and-answer format.  Rather, their responses are woven into the narrative to make a smoothly-flowing saga.

The tale continues. Once the craft were assembled and packaged on their rockets, they were summarily thrown off their native planet – never to return –  in dramatic, suspense-filled launches.

The spacecraft encountered, recorded and sent back to Earth discoveries that, on the one hand confirmed long-held ideas of the nature of the Solar System.  On the other hand, they relayed stunning new revelations that nobody – in their wildest dreams – had imagined could exist.


Each planetary encounter at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune -and the decisions and the problems – is chronicled and described by the people involved.  There is archival video from the encounter operations where you will recognize younger versions of the interviewees.  After Neptune, the continuing mission of the probes is described.  And all through the narrative, the sounds and pictures of the famous “golden record” (a Human message to the Universe) are heard and displayed.

Doubt me if you must, but this story is a compelling drama, complete with comedy, tragedy, euphoric glory and devastating failure. A well-written, well-produced timeless chronicle of a stunning achievement for all mankind.

This video has become my new “Saturn” moment.  I dragged (figuratively, figuratively!) my Wife to see it with me and she was fascinated by what she had never known.  I am working on appointments to watch it again with First and Second Sons.

Hasta Luego,


The Walkabout in Pictures  – Part II

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You will see the skyline of Chicago – a once mighty city – often referred to as the “Second City” because its population that was second only to New York.  

ChcagoSkylineCU“Second City” – soon to be Fourth.

Los Angeles passed up Chicago as “Second City” a while back,  Houston will pass it up as Third in the next census or soon after.  The “Windy City” (so named for its politicians, not its weather) is being abandoned as was Detroit.  Higher taxes, raging crime and corrupt politicians chased out businesses and taxpayers who could afford to leave.  The pols then raised taxes again to compensate and the spiral continues.  Illinois residents are furious with Chicago for breaking the State’s budget.  There was talk of abolishing the State of  Illinois and parcelling it out to the surrounding states.  I don’t have a dog in this hunt, but if I was – for example – an Indiana Resident, I’d tell my representatives, “No way you are going to pawn off Illinois debt on me!”

Driving in this city with an 18 wheeler is ain’t no picnic neither.  Anyone who says different is a masochist who loves to be abused.  The same goes for Los Angeles and New York.  Houston and Dallas are merely frustrating and confusing because the Jill, the Navigation Computer has no clue about recent construction and thinks you are on the surface streets when you are actually on the expanded freeway.  She keeps urging you  to turn left and take the on ramp – until out of desperation you move to the older left-hand lanes.  Then she will shut up and recognize the Interstate again. 

CropdusterCould be Texas or Kansas or Tennessee, for that matter.  Crop dusters are seen all over the farmland of America.  I suspect the pilots love their jobs since they can fly aerobatics all the time.  Your average airline pilots must envy them.

 My Uncle (father’s older brother) was a pilot for the duration of World War Two and Korea.  He started the first aerial crop dusting operation in Texas after that.  It had to be a great pleasure for him to maneuver like what you see here since he had flown great lumbering B-17’s in Europe and B-29’s in the Pacific theater.   There is a very good story about my Uncle flying Dad around in a piper cub.  Stay tuned.

GeologicaalMountainsMountains are a majestic presence that reduce the grim drudgery of driving to irrelevance.  They rise up out of the plains and grow slowly in the distance until, suddenly the near-infinite horizon has shortened into a winding, ascent through a labyrinth of rocky facades.

GeologyMassifShadowThe Earth rises around to blot out the sky.  Geology surrounds and penetrates the mood.  But while beauty dominates the view, the meandering highway demands respect – and vigilant attention.  The tranquil excursion across the plains is left far behind and a new paradigm – ever-changing in direction and elevation – absorbs the traveler’s reality.

 Geology_BlackCLudsSnowOut of thin air, an equally majestic skyscape. 

Cold fronts in Kansas are visible from many miles away, bisecting the sky.  North Texas produces some menacing dark, churning clouds that bring hail and threaten with funnel clouds.  I have some photos of that, but they evade detection.

weird-clouds-in-nebraska This image I titled “Weird Clouds in Nebraska”.

I know my readers are tired of hearing this:  As often happens, the photos do not do justice to the eye-witnessed scene.

Geology_FrozenReservoirA frozen reservoir.  But for that thin blue streak, ice and sky would be indistinguishable.  This is from a “scenic pull-out” and lucky for me, the “no trucks” sign did not appear.

Geology_MountainsSpiresUtah.  The “cap rocks” are harder than the underlying rock layers, which are gradually washed away in the rare showers or blown off by persistent winds to create these copious pillars.

Geology_Outcrop_TreesA ridge – from the road it looks like limestone –  harbors the only trees within the horizon. The phenomenon, when mostly vertical it is called a “dyke” and when horizontal, a “sill”.   I suspect it is also an aquifer that carries water to the surface – hence the trees.


A detour in Arizona sent me through this corridor, near Prescott.  This straight-away was one of a very few.  There is an overwhelming abundance of scenic beauty to be seen in the Western half of America.

Geology_SaltFlatsSalt flats on the edges of the Great Salt Lake (in the distance).  In my few passes of this area, I don’t remember seeing GSL without clouds.  Whether Climate or Coincidence, I can’t say.

Geology_ThatHotelInWyomingOn emerging from a tunnel in Western Wyoming.  See how the architect has matched the colors to the landscape.  This is an especially compelling tableau in the glow of the full Moon. The light reflects vividly off the snow as to make a brighter than expected nocturnal landscape.

VOlcanoNecksWinterVolcano necks that resist weathering and wind up with sides so steep they won’t hold the snow.   The famous Devil’s Tower (featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) is found in Wyoming.  Alas, it is off the major truck routes.

 Hasta Luego,