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8 Rare Books That Cost a Fortune

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Digital advancements like the Internet, e-book readers, and even your phone may have put a crimp in the sales of traditional books, but they haven't been able to slow down the rare book market. In fact, a 400-page book of psalms that dates back to 1640 is about to be auctioned off, and is expected to sell for over $30 million. Here are some other old, rare page turners that sold for big bucks. 

1. James Audubon's Birds of America

One of the bestselling rare books is a first edition of Birds of America by acclaimed artist and ornithologist James Audubon. The book, which dated back to 1827 and had 435 hand-drawn illustrations, was sold at auction to an anonymous buyer for more than $10 million. The book itself was more than 3 feet in length because Audubon wanted his birds to appear life-size on the page. He also drew the printing plates for his birds in black and white and a number of artists had to hand paint them with watercolors, an expensive process that drove up the price of his book even in his time. 

2. A "First Folio" of William Shakespeare's Works

A first edition of a book by one of the greatest writers of all time (if you don't ask high school English students who are required to read the plays in order to graduate) fetched a pretty penny in 2006—$2.8 million, to be exact—at a Sotheby's auction in London. The book is actually considered one of the least rare since approximately a third of the 750 original copies are still in existence today.

3. Edgar Allan Poe's Tamerlane and Other Poems

America's biggest rare book sale to date goes to a copy of Poe's very first book. A first edition of Tamerlane and Other Poems, a book that Poe claimed he wrote just before he turned 14, sold at a Christie's auction in 2009 for $662,500. Only 50 copies were ever printed, and scholars believe that only 12 are currently in existence. Another copy of the book also held the previous U.S. rare book sale record: It went for $225,000 almost 20 years before the 2006 auction. 

4. Nicolaus Copernicus's De Revolutionibus Orbium Colestium

A first print of Copernicus's first book, in which he theorized that the Earth revolved around the sun, took home a huge chunk of change in 2009. A buyer from Christie's auction house paid more than $2.2 million for the well-preserved book (title translated to On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). It was the highest price for a rare book sold at an auction where the first telephone book, printed two years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the device, went for $170,000. 

5. Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Leicester

The notes and drawings of one of mankind's greatest men is also in the hands of the one of its richest. Microsoft founder and entrepreneur Bill Gates spent more than $30.8 million for an original copy of da Vinci's famous manuscript that the artist and inventor first penned in 1508. Then, rather than just watch it collect dust in his archives, Gates had digital copies made of the manuscript and put them online as part of a virtual exhibit with the British Library.

6. The Guo Family Library Collection

Individually, the books in this collection may not have sold for big bucks, but as a collection, they made for an impressive sale. Guo Yunlou sold his family's collection of 1292 books, some of which dated back to the 1820s during the reign of China's Qing dynasty, for a staggering 216 million yuan ($34.2 million) at a Beijing auction house last year. It took six generations of his family to amass and care for the collection, which included an 80-volume encyclopedia of flowers. 

7. Action Comics No. 1

It may not be as enlightening as the first copy of the Magna Carta or as intellectually stimulating as a first edition of Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, but that didn't stop one collector from writing a huge check for the first Superman comic book, published in 1938: It sold at an auction in 2011 for a whopping $2.16 million, the highest price for a comic book of any kind. The comic once belonged to actor Nicolas Cage, who reported it stolen from his Hollywood home in 2000. It surfaced again in April 2011 when someone bought an abandoned Southern California storage locker and found the missing comic among its contents.

8. Golf: Luxury Edition

This book was also a recent print, but the company that published it felt that its rarity and "luxury" merited a more expensive asking price. Wonderland Publications put together a carefully handcrafted book about golf in 2011 and offered an extremely expensive "luxury edition" that readers could pick up for the low, low price of $48,000. The huge price tag wasn't just paying for what went into the book but also what went on it. All 140 pages were hand torn and bound together in a cover made from 400-year-old Russian hide leather. Only 10 were made.

Honorable Mention: Tomas Alexander Hartmann's The Task

This 13-page book isn't very old, but it is very rare and very expensive. German artist and writer Tomas Alexander Hartmann only commissioned one copy of his book, and he put it on the market in 2008 for an asking price of 153 million Euros ($199,940,400). A press release announcing the book's release and first public appearance claimed that Hartmann put such a steep price on it because he took more than 30 years to come up with the words for his 13-page book, and he believed the price was merited because he "sees himself as the greatest philosopher of all time." In 2009, the artist put the book back on display for the final time, reportedly because he "tired of the many questions he finds himself confronted with," according to a press release.  There is no indication that he has found a buyer—so far.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]