Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/September 1878/Popular Miscellany


The Recent Solar Eclipse.—The telegraphic reports from the various stations for observing the solar eclipse of July 29th are of necessity meagre and confused. The atmospheric conditions were eminently favorable along the line of totality, indeed in the whole region west of the Mississippi, while throughout the East clouds generally concealed the phenomenon from view. Dr. Henry Draper, stationed at Rawlins, Wyoming Territory, took four photographs of the corona, two of them with his large spectroscope. These latter are declared to be "very sharp and full of detail." This is a very fortunate circumstance, for it will enable scientific men to ascertain the precise truth touching a very important difference between the observations of Dr. Draper and those of the other astronomers. Dr. Draper reports that he finds the corona spectrum marked with the usual Fraunhofer's lines of the sun's spectrum. These lines were not seen by the other observers, whether at the same station or at the many other stations in the track of the total eclipse. Mr. Lockyer, in a dispatch, says that "Newcomb's party and Barker made careful search for dark lines in the corona, but none were observed. Young," he adds, "telegraphed that there were no lines observed in the ultraviolet at Denver." Again, most of the spectroscopic observers report the presence of bright lines in the coronal spectrum, Prof. Young seeing several bright bands, and in particular the Kirchhoff line 1447. This observation, too, is negatived by that of Dr. Draper, whose photographs of the corona exhibit none of these bright lines. The world of science will await with profound interest the minute examination of all these coronal photographs; the result will decide whether, in accordance with the almost unanimous opinion of physical astronomers, the corona is a self-luminous liquid or solid body, or only reflected sunlight.

Prof. Langley, stationed at Pike's Peak, Colorado, reports that he "saw the corona elongated;" that it "resembled the zodiacal light." Further, that he "followed it a distance of twelve diameters of the sun on one side and three on the other." This observation, if confirmed (and we may observe that none of the other astronomers appear to have confirmed it), would go to prove an extension of the corona into space about five times greater than the highest estimate hitherto made. Search was made during the eclipse for an intra-mercurial planet. Herein only one of the observers, Prof. Watson, claims to have been successful: he reports having discovered an intra-mercurial planet, of magnitude four and a half, in right ascension eight hours twenty-six minutes; declination north 18°. The solar protuberances were much less prominent than in most recent eclipses.

Prof. Colbert, of Chicago, stationed at Denver, Colorado, reports that his observations tend to show that the moon's path in the heavens lay a little farther to the southward than is indicated by the lunar tables, or else that the estimate of the moon's diameter is too large. Possibly both suppositions are correct. Of Edison's "tasimeter," Mr. Lockyer writes from Rawlins:

"The tasimeter, the new instrument on which Edison has been working unceasingly here, has proved its delicacy. During the eclipse he attached it to Thomson's galvanometer, which was set to zero. When the telescope carrying the tasimeter was pointed several degrees from the sun, the point of light rapidly left the scale as the corona was brought upon the fine slit by which the tasimeter itself was protected."

Progress of the Electric Light.—Progress is being steadily made with the electric light, both in the sense of improving the apparatus needed for utilizing it and in finding for it practical application. In Paris the railway-station Gare St.-Lazare is now very effectively lighted with the aid of the instrument known as Lontin's distributing machine. The contrast between the pure, clear white electric light and the dull-yellow gaslights in the surrounding streets is enough to convince the most skeptical of the superiority of electricity over gas as an illuminating agent. In the Lontin machine ordinary prepared carbon-wicks are employed, which are regulated by a Lontin burner: the light is remarkably steady, and the wicks burn in the open air without globes or shades of any kind. A strong objection to this machine, unfitting it for use in private houses, is the hissing noise it makes when in operation. The electric candle invented by Jobloshkoff is used for illuminating the Place de l'Opéra in the same city. Across the open area of the Place, and extending toward the new Avenue de l'Opéra, there is a double row of large lamp-posts down each side, each surmounted by a large cylindrical lamp of clouded glass, and containing twelve electric candles. The whole space is lighted as bright almost as day. As soon as a candle burns down, another is moved by mechanism into its place without much appreciable disturbance of the general effect. There is no flickering. The great drawback to the Jabloshkoff candle is its costliness, the illumination being as expensive as when gas is used.

Bathing as a Cause of Ear-Disease.—Inflammation of the middle ear, often resulting in chronic deafness, is a not infrequent consequence of bathing. The damage, according to Dr. Sexton, in the Medical Record, consists in the admission of water to the ear, either through the external auditory canal or the Eustachian tube. When water finds admittance to the former, if cold or salt, inflammation of the meatus alone may result; or, if violently injected, as in surf bathing, or long retained in the canal from diving, the disease may affect the drumhead and middle ear. Whenever water is forced from the mouth and nostrils into the middle ear through the Eustachian tube, inflammation of the middle ear is almost sure to occur, even though the water be warm. According to the author, several thousand severe cases of aural disease result annually from bathing in New York City alone. The bather, when in the surf, should take the water on his chest or back, with mouth and nostrils closed, and never presenting the ear to the in-coming wave. A firm pledget of cotton-wool in the ears is some protection.

The Carpet-Beetle.—Notices have appeared from time to time during the last four or five years of a new carpet-beetle said to be far more destructive than the familiar carpet-moth. This insect has been identified by Dr. J. L. Le Conte as Anthrenus scrophulariæ, a European species. A good account of it is given in the American Naturalist by Mr. J. A. Lintner, who has studied this insect attentively since its first appearance on our shores. The larva, he says, measures at maturity about three-sixteenths of an inch in length, and it is in this stage of its existence that Anthrenus preys upon carpets. A number of hairs radiate from its last segment in nearly a semicircle, forming a tail-like appendage almost as long as the body. The front part of the body, which has no distinct head, is thickly set with short brown hairs and a few longer ones. Similar short hairs clothe the body. The body has the appearance of being banded in two shades of brown, the darker one being the central portion of each ring, and the lighter the connecting portion of the rings. Having attained its full larval growth, it prepares for its pupal change without forming a cocoon, but merely seeking some convenient retreat. Here it remains motionless until it has completed its pupation, when the skin is rent along the back and through the fissure the pupa is seen. A few weeks later the pupal skin is split down the middle of its dorsal aspect, and the brightly-colored wing-covers of the beetle are disclosed. Soon after their emergence from the pupal case during the fall, winter, and spring, the beetles pair and the females lay their eggs for another brood of larvæ. The Anthrenus once introduced into a house quickly infests it in every part. Thus, in a house at Cold Spring, New York, which had remained shut up for twelve months, they "took complete possession from the cellar to the attic, in every nook and crevice of the floors, under matting and carpets, behind pictures, eating everything in their way." No effectual means of combating this insect pest has yet been discovered; they are said to "grow fat" on camphor, pepper, tobacco, turpentine, carbolic acid, and the other ordinary applications.

The Earthquake-Scare in North Carolina.—Bald Mountain, in Western North Carolina, forming part of the Blue Ridge of the Alleghanies, has for two or three years been receiving a good deal of attention in the newspapers. Rumbling noises have now and then been heard in the mountain, and these were by the people of the surrounding country taken to be conclusive evidences of volcanic action. As is usual in such cases, these actual phenomena were magnified enormously by the popular imagination, and to them were added others which had no objective existence. Prof. Clarke, of the University of Cincinnati, having devoted the early days of his summer vacation this year to investigating the causes of these rumblings, declares, in a letter to the New York Tribune, that "Bald Mountain is no more an earthquake centre than is Central Park," and that "it is merely a locality in which some large rock-slides of an exceedingly gradual character are going on." Nevertheless, the mountain is an object well worthy of study. It forms one side of a pass through the Blue Ridge, Chimney Rock forming the other. While the latter mountain is made up of smooth sheets of what appears to be gneiss, Bald Mountain is all over cracked and fissured, the fissures in some places forming large caves. The recent disturbances have chiefly affected a low spur of the mountain, rising about one thousand feet above the valley. From below the appearance is as if the whole side of the spur was sliding down.

Prof. Clarke first climbed up the side of this spur to a cave which had been discovered a very short time previously. Here he found himself below a precipitous mass of rock two or three hundred feet high, at the foot of which immense numbers of fallen bowlders had formed crevices and caves innumerable. But the new cave was the largest of all. The floor of the cave was everywhere covered with fallen rocks. The newspaper accounts tell of powerful "currents of ice-cold air" issuing from the caverns; but Prof. Clarke found no strong currents, and a difference of only four degrees of temperature between the inside and the outside air. The "smoke of the Bald Mountain volcano" is not smoke at all, but fine dust formed by the grinding and clashing of the rocks. Prof. Clarke next visited "the Crack," a crevice very probably of quite recent origin. This is merely a rent in the rock about one hundred feet in length, seventy-five in depth, and nowhere over ten in width. The explanation given of these cracks and the noises is found in the geological constitution of the mountain, which is built up of sheets of an easily decomposable gneiss, inclined at a slight angle and sliding downward. These sheets of gneiss are full of cracks running at approximately right angles to the pseudo-stratification. The caves are merely spaces which have been left when an upper sheet of rock has slidden off and become inclined against a lower. Nowhere is any sign of volcanic action to be seen. As for earthquakes, the surrounding country is as free from them as any other in the whole country. Prof. Clarke accounts as follows for the rumbling noises: The rocks, as we have seen, are cracked across their stratification. When a large sheet of gneiss is gradually sliding down, there comes eventually upon some part of it a strain sufficient to produce a fracture. This breaking is, of course, attended by a noise, to which the immense caves and crevices serve as resounding chambers.

Material Resources of European Russia.—Russia in Europe, considered with regard to its economic products, may be divided into five distinct zones or regions, viz.: Starting from the north, the tundras, the forest and agricultural regions (forming three zones), and the steppe. The peculiarities of each of these are described by a writer in the Geographical Magazine, who derives his information from authentic sources. Of the tundras, those bare, damp, arctic wastes, mostly situated between the arctic circle and the polar ocean, he says that in winter they are frozen, and that in summer they thaw to the depth of a foot or so. The tundra area is about 144,820 square miles, and almost the sole vegetable productions are turf-moss and reindeer-moss. This region does not promise ever to be of any considerable economic value. The forest zone extends from the limit of trees southward to 60° north latitude, and embraces the greater part of Finland, the governments of Olonetz, Vologda, most of Archangel, and the northern districts of Novgorod, Vyatka, and Perm. Area, 815,790 square miles. Population, between thirteen and fourteen souls per square mile. The economic products are fur, timber, tar, and potash. The four northern governments of Archangel, Vologda, Olonetz, and Uleaborg, cannot expect ever to attain a much higher degree of cultivation than at present. The inhabitants prefer the chase to agriculture, and devote only three months in the year to the latter. The agricultural zone extends from the sixtieth parallel to the steppe. Of this zone, the northern and central portions are a diluvial deposit, forming a thin, sandy soil that requires plentiful manuring; but the southern zone, the "black-earth" region, yields rich harvests without manuring or labor. Thus this zone may be divided into two belts, northern and southern. The northern belt includes fifteen entire governments and parts of others, with a total area of 371,900 square miles; average population fifty-four to the square mile. The region yields too little wheat for the support of its inhabitants, i. e., of the minimum allowance, 2.3 chetverts per head, only 1.7 chetvert is produced at home. The industrial wealth of Russia is mostly confined to this northern agricultural zone, the centre of manufacturing industry being the government of Moscow. The forests are gradually being diminished, through supplying fuel to carry on these industries, and there is the same improvident waste of timber which is to be seen in our backwoods. The output of coal in the Moscow district rose from 1,500,000 puds in 1860 to 9,000,000 puds in 1872; in the same year the Polish yield was 17,500,000 puds. The coal-deposits on both sides of the Ural, though rich and easily worked, are only used for the neighboring iron and copper works. The southern agricultural zone is so destitute of timber that the only fuel obtainable there, besides the droppings of cattle, is dry, half-wooded grain-stalks. The total area of the "black earth" is estimated at 250,760 square miles, extending over twenty-two governments, eight of which belong to the steppe region. In addition to these, six of the West Russia governments and Poland are noted for their fertility. The wheat produced in the black-earth country amounts to more than two-thirds of Russia's total yield, while potatoes are chiefly grown in the Polish and Baltic provinces. The population of the black-earth region forms 53 per cent, of the entire population of the country, and its crops 68 per cent, of the total yield. The manufacture of sugar from the beet is carried on extensively in the Kiev government. The crying want of this region is good roads. The chief vegetation found on the steppe is grasses, spiniferous and leafless plants, bulbous plants, etc. Forest-growth and cultivation are found only near the rivers; fuel is very scarce. The population of the steppe zone is very sparse, and the chief dependence of the inhabitants is on their cattle. In the south and southeast portions of the empire horses are bred in great numbers. The steppe zone is also rich in oxen and sheep. The grape is cultivated here to a considerable extent. Southern Russia is furthermore the chief source of salt-supply to the other governments of the empire.

Meteorological Notes.—Prof. Loomis's ninth paper on meteorology in the American Journal of Science and Arts for July is based on the observations of the United States Signal Service made between September, 1872, and October, 1874.

In tracing the rise and phenomena of the great storms which traverse the northern United States and British America, observations made at Portland, Oregon, were studied. During the period named, comprising twenty-six months, there were sixty-three instances of low barometer, corresponding to eighteen different storms.

Each of these instances of low pressure appears to have moved eastward, and can be traced to the Atlantic coast. All occurred in the six colder months of the year, and were most numerous in January. Their origin appears to have been northwestward of Portland, and probably over the Pacific Ocean.

Simultaneously with low barometer at Portland, there occurred high barometer eastward from that city, at an average distance of about fifteen hundred miles. The areas of low barometer advancing eastward crossed the continent in an average period of five days. The path traversed, however, was not a direct one. The low pressure areas were developed as far north as latitude 50°; but in the middle of the continent the centres of low pressure were in latitude 40°, whence the direction was north of east, reaching the coast in latitude 45°.

From observations, which include those made in a previous paper, it appears that areas of low pressure are not only preceded, but are followed, by areas of high barometer. These conditions, each succeeding the other, traverse the continent with wonderful uniformity. Mountain-ranges from 6,000 to 10,000 feet high do not arrest, and but slightly modify, the eastward movement of these great atmospheric waves.

The high barometer following the areas of low pressure in their progress is usually attended by winds of great violence, from the north and northwest, attaining in some cases a velocity of from thirty to fifty-seven miles an hour. Extreme cold occurred too in many instances, the mercury falling in one case to -36° Fahr.

A fact of great interest presented by Prof. Loomis in a former paper is more fully illustrated in the present one; it is this, that while the air continually flows inward and spirally upward in a storm-area, or area of low barometer, it as continually flows outward at great elevations to areas of high barometer, where it descends to the earth's surface. Here it resumes its motion inward toward the storm-centre, gathering vapor in its progress, to be condensed into rain. It is seen from this that a constant vertical circulation occurs. The tables and charts presented by Prof. Loomis, showing these facts, are elaborate and conclusive. The direction of the movement of the upper air is determined by that of the clouds which float in it.

"The clouds," says Prof. Loomis, "were in all cases seen to be moving away from the low centre outward, toward an area of high pressure, where the air descends to the earth; here it again moves inward, and finally upward, in the gyrations of the storm."

Death to the English Sparrow.—The right of the European house-sparrow to settle in the United States is hotly contested in the American Naturalist, by Dr. Elliott Coues, who regards that bird as an unmitigated nuisance. The author makes no secret of his aversion for the sparrow and his contempt for the sparrow's friends. The former is a "wretched interloper" that "does not do any appreciable good; does a very obvious amount of damage; and has no place in the natural economy of this country." The sparrow's friends are divided into five categories, viz.: 1. The silly ones (though Dr. Coues by a circumlocution avoids the use of this plain language, it is clear to see that he means it). This class is composed chiefly of "children, women, and old fogies." 2. Those who were instrumental in getting the birds here. 3. Quasi-ornithologists. 4. The clacqueurs of the quasis. 5. A very few intelligent and scientific persons. Having thus cleared the ground, Dr. Coues presents the specific articles of his indictment of the sparrow. In substance they are: 1. That the sparrows neglect entirely or perform very insufficiently the business they were imported to do, videlicet destroying worms and insects. 2. That they do "attack, harass, fight against, dispossess, drive away, and sometimes actually kill, various of our native birds which are much more insectivorous by nature than themselves." 3. That they commit great depredations in the kitchen-garden, orchard, and grain-field. 4. In this specification the author delicately alludes to certain evidences of a lack of moral restraint in the sparrow, offensive to many persons. Item, nervous invalids are fretted and annoyed into positive illness by the unceasing noisiness of these birds. 5. "They (the sparrows) have at present practically no natural enemies, nor any check whatever upon limitless increase," though, even with the most unobjectionable species of birds, a check would be desirable. And now what course must we adopt in order to abate this sparrow nuisance?—for abate it we must, or else the sparrows will eat us all out of house and home. Dr. Coues's recommendations on this head are: 1. Let the birds shift for themselves. Take down the boxes and all special contrivances for sheltering and petting the sparrows; stop feeding them; stop supplying them with building-material. 2. Abolish the legal penalties for killing them. "Let boys kill them if they wish. Let them be trapped and used as pigeons or glass balls in shooting-matches among sportsmen." This last recommendation shows very plainly that Dr. Coues has lost all patience with the sparrow. For ourselves, we hope the evil will be checked by some different means.

Agencies of Nitrification.—The researches of Schloesing and Müntz in nitrification have resulted in the very important discovery of a nitrifying organism analogous to the ferment organism of yeast. The evidence of the existence of a nitrifying organism is found in the fact that the process of nitrification, however actively it may be going on, is immediately stopped when chloroform-vapor is introduced, the effect being precisely the same as that seen when chloroform-vapor comes in contact with yeast. Again, these authors find that when nitrification has thus been stopped for several weeks, the addition of a small quantity of a nitrifying body will start the process again. They also find that the temperature of boiling water is sufficient to destroy all power of nitrification, and that soil which has once been heated to that point produces, in air free from germs, carbonic acid and ammonia, but no nitrates. If, however, this soil is moistened with water containing a little untreated soil, the production of nitric acid again commences. This new theory, as we learn from Nature, has been tested in England with results fully confirmatory of the views set forth by Schloesing and Müntz. Hence the evidence is very strong that the nitrates in soil owe their origin to oxidation brought about by living organisms.

How Ants distinguish Each Other.—Ants are eminently pugnacious, and opposing hosts belonging to the same species may any day in summer be seen waging internecine wars on one another. But how are they able to distinguish friend from foe in their tumultuous strife? Mr. McCook, member of the Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia, has made sundry experiments which appear to show that difference of odor constitutes the means of discrimination. Of course, it is not possible to demonstrate this hypothesis directly by showing the existence, either of distinct odors, or of different intensity of odor, in opposing hosts. But, if we introduce into the scene of conflict some strong foreign odor which shall obliterate the odors peculiar to the two groups of combatants, we may deprive them of the power of telling friend from foe, and make them live together in harmony as one community. Such was the idea which occurred to Mr. McCook. He collected a number of combatants, and placed them, friend and foeman, together in a glass jar upon some soil. The battle was continued, and when it was again at its height a pellet of paper saturated with cologne-water was introduced into the jar. The effect was instantaneous. The ants showed no signs of pain, displeasure, or intoxication; indeed, some ran freely over the paper. But in a very few seconds the combatants had unclasped mandibles, released their hold of enemies' legs, antennæ, and bodies, and after a momentary confusion began to burrow galleries in the earth with the utmost harmony. The quondam foes dwelt together for several days in unity and fraternity, amicably feeding, burrowing, and building. Another experiment was as follows: A large number of warring ants were placed in a box partly filled with soil, and communicating by a glass tube with a smaller box. The larger box was about ten inches long and eight inches in depth and width; both boxes had sliding glass covers. Cologne was introduced as before into that end of the box in which the combatants were principally engaged. In less than two minutes every sign of hostility had ceased except in the case of one small group and two single combatants in the opposite end; but a small pellet of perfumed paper, dropped in their neighborhood, put an end to the battle here. Previous to this, occasional stragglers had passed along the connecting glass tube into the smaller box. Most of them seemed to be of one faction, only one of the opposition having entered, upon whom six or eight ants were expending their wrath. This was the only remaining centre of strife, when Mr. McCook replaced ants and earth upon their native territory. The battle was continuing there, between greatly-diminished numbers of course, after the removal of the large battalions into the box, but the application of a feather dipped in cologne to the neighborhood of the warriors caused the instant cessation of controversy. The next day there were no ants found upon the surface, but digging two inches under ground, close by the fence, he observed a few. The battle was evidently over. There had been in the mean time a great change of temperature, from 96° to 47° Fahr., and this may have had some effect in sending the ants underground.

How the Lake-Dwellers lived.—A recently-published work on "The Lake-Dwellings of Switzerland" throws much needed light on the mode of life followed by the inhabitants of those curious constructions. That they must have been expert fishermen is shown by the large number of fish-skeletons, especially the skull of very large pike, found buried among the piles. So, too, the bones, which lie about in the lake dwellings in astonishing numbers, of stags, roes, wild-boars, beavers, squirrels, etc., are an evidence of the abundance of game, and of the ability of the settlers to capture even the higher description of wild animals. But the lake-dwellers did not depend on the chance products of hunting and fishing. They had already domesticated many of the animals, which to-day are the companions of man—as cows, sheep, goats, pigs. A great variety of seeds and plants were also cultivated by them for their own use and that of their domesticated animals. They cultivated flax of excellent quality; and their textile and other manufactures show considerable proficiency and skill. Tools and utensils of flint, of bronze, and of iron, have been found in the sites of these lake dwellings, and the question arises whether the inhabitants were one people through the three successive ages of Stone, Bronze, and Iron, or whether each age was heralded by a new invasion. The evidence goes to prove the former hypothesis, of one race successively advancing from one stage of civilization to another.

Rapid Decay of Timber.—Till recently chestnut-timber has been always employed for beams in constructing houses in Rome, but, in most of the houses built since the occupation of the city by the Italian Government, pine joists have been used. After a few years the roofs and floors in which the pine had been employed were found to be falling, the joists having rotted at the point of junction with the walls, while the intermediate portions remained sound. The cause of this decay was discovered by accident on taking down the scaffold which had been erected for the use of the workmen engaged in building the hall of the Ministry of Finance. A correspondent of Prof. Tyndall's, writing from Rome, states that around one of the scaffold-poles, which was imbedded some four feet in the ground, had accumulated a heap about six feet high of pozzuolana mortar—that is, mortar made of lime and the peculiar argillaceous sand, of volcanic origin, known as pozzuolana. The underground portion and that above the mortar-heap were perfectly sound; that covered by the mortar was utterly rotten. Hence it was clear that the mortar was to blame. In what respect, then, does Roman mortar differ from that used in Venice, for instance, where pine-timber has stood in mortar for centuries without impairment? The sole difference was in the use of pozzuolana, which therefore seems to have some special chemical affinity for pine, while, as regards chestnut, it is neutral. It is stated that, in consequence of this peculiar action of the Roman mortar on the pine-timbers of the numerous buildings erected on the Esquiline Hill since 1870, many of the roofs and floors have had to be renewed.