Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/May 1879/Popular Miscellany


Famines in Ancient and Modern Times.—In a statistical paper recently published, Mr. Cornelius Walford gives a chronological table of the famines of which historic record exists, and then in twelve other tables notes the operation of the various causes, natural and artificial, which tend to produce famines, among the natural causes being floods and inundations, frost, drought, sundry other meteorological phenomena, insects, and vermin. The artificial causes are considered under the heads of war, defective agriculture, defective transport, legislative interference, currency restrictions, speculation, and, finally, misapplication of grain. What strikes the reader who glances at the first table is the great frequency of famines in earlier times, as compared with the present. Take, for instance, the record of two or three hundred years, beginning with the year 600, and compare it with that of the hundred years beginning with the year 1775. And, in making this comparison, it must be remembered that such events are sure to find permanent record to-day, while in earlier times the record was local, and has in many instances since been effaced. Mr. Walford's first table records, under the date 600 to 604, famine in France; 605, in England; 625, in Britain (grievous); 664, Ireland great famine; 667, Scotland (grievous); 669, France—great famine; 669, Ireland great scarcity, also in the following year; 680, Britain, from three years' drought; 695, England, and 700, Ireland—famine and pestilence for three years, "so that men ate each other"; 703, Italy—three years' famine; 712, Wales; 730, England, Wales, and Scotland—great famine; 748, Scotland; 759, Ireland—great famine; 768, same country—famine, and again 772; 774, Scotland—famine, "with plague"; 791, Wales—grievous famine; 793, England—famine; 803, Scotland—"terrible" famine; 822-'23, England—"thousands starve"; 824-'25, Ireland—great dearth; 836, Wales—"the ground covered with dead bodies of men and beasts"; 845, Bulgaria—great famine; 851, Italy and Germany—famine; 856, Scotland—a four years' famine began; 836, same country—famine, with plague; 872, England—famine "from ugly locust." In this century Paris was visited by famine three times. Now, turn to the record of the last hundred years. In 1775, at Cape de Verde—great famine—16,000 persons perish; 1789, France—grievous famine, province of Rouen; 1795, England—scarcity of food severely felt; 1801, United Kingdom—great scarcity; flour obtained from America; 1812, England and Ireland—great scarcity; 1813, Poland—famine consequent on an inundation; same year 5,000 souls perished in Sweden; 1822, Ireland—dreadful famine, produced by failure of potato crop; 1832, same country—famine—Parliament grants £40,000 for relief, and £74,410 subscribed in England; 1845, same country Parliament advanced £10,000,000—275,000 persons supposed to have perished; famine lasted nearly six years; 1,029,552 persons died in this period from starvation and pestilence consequent on it; population reduced by these causes and emigration by about 2,500,000; 1847, France—scarcity; 1877, Brazil—upward of 200,000 of the population exposed to famine. We have purposely omitted notices of the famines in countries outside of Europe, or not settled mainly by Europeans. In such regions famine is at least as frequent and dread a visitant as ever it was. The contrast made by the foregoing figures is highly creditable to modern civilization.

The Age of the World.—The age of the world, as estimated by T. Mellard Reade, in a paper contributed to the London Royal Society, is enormously in excess of the limits assigned by certain physicists, and allows ample time for the production of all the changes of the organic and inorganic world postulated by the theory of evolution. Limestones, he remarks, have been in course of formation from the earliest known geological periods, but it would appear that the later-formed strata are more calcareous than the earlier, and that there has in fact been a gradually progressive increase of calcareous matter. The very extensive deposition of carbonate of lime over wide areas of the ocean-bottom at the present day is attested by the soundings of the Challenger. According to Mr. Reade, the sedimentary crust of the earth is at least one mile in average actual thickness, of which probably one tenth consists of calcareous matter. In seeking the origin of this calcareous matter, it is assumed that the primitive rocks of the original crust were of the nature of granitic or basaltic rocks. By disintegration of such rocks, calcareous and other sedimentary deposits have been formed. The amount of lime-salts in waters which drain districts made up of granites and basalts is on an average about 3·75 parts in 100,000 parts of water. It is further assumed that the exposed areas of igneous rocks, taking an average throughout all geological time, will bear to the exposures of sedimentary rocks a ratio of about one to nine. From these and other data Mr. Reade concludes that the elimination of the sedimentary strata must have occupied at least six hundred million years. This would be the minimum age of the world. The author infers that the formation of the Laurentian, Cambrian, and Silurian strata must have occupied about two hundred million years; the Old Red Sandstone, the Carboniferous, and the Poikilitic systems another two hundred million; and all the other strata the remaining two hundred million.

Professor Clarke on Lockyer's Researches.—Professor F. W. Clarke, of Cincinnati, sends a letter to "Science News" in relation to the recent views of Mr. Lockyer on the compound nature of the chemical elements. Professor Clarke was himself early in that field, and published a very suggestive article in "The Popular Science Monthly" of January, 1873, on "Evolution and the Spectroscope," in which he announced on spectroscopic grounds the hypothesis that the evolution of planets from nebula had been accompanied by an evolution of complex from simple forms of matter. The idea was based upon the gradation in chemical complexity of the celestial spectra. About eight months later Mr. Lockyer put forth essentially the same views, resting them upon exactly the same evidence. Professor Clarke then goes over the ground recently taken by Lockyer, and recognizes that he has decidedly advanced the inquiry from a theoretical point of view. He traces the new lines of evidence, and considers that absolute demonstration may perhaps be attainable only by an actual decomposition of the elements in the laboratory; but a probability so strong as to command universal acceptance may be otherwise established. Mr. Lockyer has done much toward establishing this probability, and it is to be hoped that he will successfully continue his labors in the same direction. Meanwhile, chemists must seek new evidence from other sources, until, one way or another, the vexed question shall be laid definitely at rest.

The Distinctions between Man and Animals.—In a brief and sprightly, if not very profound article, a writer in the "Monthly Journal of Science" examines the validity of one of the principal distinctions which have been drawn between man and animals, namely, the supposed fact that while men progress as individuals, as communities, and as a species, animals stand stock-still, each succeeding generation attaining just the development of its predecessor and nothing more. The author, on the contrary, maintains that the individual man does not make progress from the cradle to the grave, but that, from the middle of life, and often indeed from an earlier date, he is a mere bundle of habits and prejudices: no further mental growth is possible, however long he may happen to survive. To a man, then, brutes exhibit no well-marked contrast, but a decided similarity: in the earlier part of life they are, like ourselves, capable of progress; but later their faculties are blunted, and, like man, they become stationary; as far, therefore, as individual progress is concerned, man and beast differ only in degree. There is also among mankind a national or tribal progress distinct from that of the individual and that of the species, but, like them, not unlimited in extent and duration. Nations decay, and the cause of this decay is to be sought in the decline of that which in a nation corresponds to vitality in the individual—the "tribal instinct." Among those animal species which live in organized communities or nations the very same phenomenon occurs, and every ant-hill might have its Gibbon. The author here cites the observations of Berthelot, already quoted in the "Monthly" (current volume, p. 248.) It remains to consider the real or fancied superiority of every generation of mankind over the foregoing; this superiority the author calls in question. Even as regards knowledge and power, the advance which some claim as a characteristic of humanity is effected by exceptional individuals who arise in certain races under favorable circumstances only, and is quite compatible with long intervals of immobility and even of decline. Besides, it is not proved that the lower animals are literally incapable of progress. To enforce this point the author quotes certain interesting observations made by the writer of a work entitled "Flowers and their Unbidden Guests," who had for months been in the habit of sprinkling powdered sugar on the sill of his window, for a train of ants which passed in constant procession from the garden to the window. "One day he took it into his head to put the powdered sugar into a vessel, which he fastened with a string to the transom of the window, and, in order that his long-petted insects might have information of the supply suspended above, a number of the same set of ants were placed with the sugar in the vessel. These busy creatures forthwith seized on the particles of sugar, and, soon discovering the only way open to them, viz., up the string, over the transom, and down the window-frame, rejoined their fellows on the sill, whence they could resume the old route down the wall into the garden. Before long the route over the new track from the sill to the sugar by the window-frame, transom, and string, was completely established, and so passed a day or two without anything new. Then one morning it was noticed that the ants were stopping at their old place, the window-sill, and again getting sugar there. Not a single individual any longer traversed the path that led thence to the sugar above. This was not because the store above had been exhausted, but because some dozen little fellows were working away vigorously and incessantly up aloft in the vessel, dragging the sugar-crumbs to its edge, and throwing them down to their comrades on the sill."

The Earthquake of November 18, 1878.—Of the earthquake of November 18, 1878, Professor Nipher, of the University of St. Louis, says that it was felt over an area of fully 150,000 square miles, the region disturbed forming an ellipse, with its major axis reaching from Leavenworth to Tuscaloosa, a distance of over 600 miles. The minor axis extended from near Clarksville, Arkansas, to a point midway between Cairo and St. Louis, a distance of 300 miles. The region of greatest disturbance was along the Mississippi from Cairo to Memphis. Here the shocks were universally felt; the walls of buildings could be seen to move, and strong frame houses creaked as when every joint is strained by a strong wind. At Ironton, Missouri, the shock was so severe as to alarm some of the occupants of brick houses. Along the Missouri from Glasgow to Lexington the shock was also severe, awakening many families, who thought a heavy wind-storm was in progress. The shock appears to have been felt first at Glasgow at 11 h. 23 m. (St. Louis time). The shock traveled rapidly along the axis of the ellipse, reaching Cairo at 11 h. 48 m., and Memphis at 11 h. 50 m. At Little Rock it was distinctly felt, although not observed at Clarksville, which is thirty miles farther up the river.

Physiological Effects of Arsenic.—The physiological effects of arsenic have lately been studied anew by Gies, who administered minute doses of the poison daily for four months to pigs, rabbits, and fowls. The daily dose for a rabbit was 0·0005 to 0·0007 of a gramme, for a pig 0·005 to 0·05, and for a fowl 0·001 to 0·008. In all these animals the weight of the body increased, and the subcutaneous fat was augmented. In young growing animals the bones developed considerably, both in length and in girth, and they presented the peculiarity that, wherever in the normal state spongy tissue exists, it was superseded by compact bone. Moreover, just as Weigner found to be the case in animals supplied with small doses of phosphorus in their food, a compact layer of bone was found immediately beneath the epiphyseal cartilages of the long bones. This effect was apparent after the arsenic had been given for nineteen days, and where only 0·02 to 0·035 gramme had been taken. It was observed that animals fed in the same stable presented the same appearances in the bones, which Gies refers to the air being laden with the arsenic eliminated by the lungs and skin of the animals under experiment, for he found that the same changes were observable in animals kept in a cage, the bottom of which was strewed with arsenic. Besides the changes in the bones, the heart, liver, kidneys, and even the spleen, underwent fatty degeneration. The young of animals fed with arsenic were invariably born dead, though they attained a large size, and presented remarkable hypertrophy of the spleen, and incipient changes in the bones.

What shall we eat?—Dr. E. C. Angell, author of a paper in "The Sanitarian" entitled "Alimentation in Health and Disease," would make wheaten food and not beef the basis of alimentation. In a natural and rational system of dietetics wheat and the allied seed-foods, including beans, lentils, peas, and rice, must, he holds, take the place now usurped by animal foods, including, besides flesh-meats, butter, cheese, eggs, and milk. Next should come the appetizing, juicy fruits, and then the plant foods, which are neither seeds nor fruits, and which are generally styled vegetables. After these come the various animal foods, and last of all the stimulating spices, beverages, and other food adjuncts. According to Dr. Angell, "the true life-giving and mental, moral, and physical force-producing bread is neither more nor less than sound, ripe wheat when deprived of its thin outer silicious husk, coarsely ground and mixed with water, and subjected to just that degree of kneading and baking which will suffice to prepare it for mastication, insalivation, and the subsequent action of the gastric juice." The dough should be kneaded into rolls a little larger than the largest macaroni, and when baked the product gets the name of "sticks." In these "sticks" we have every nutritious element of the grain, with no fermentation, no cryptogamic vegetation, no deleterious chemical or mineral ingredients. We have, furthermore, a substance that must be chewed, as it can not be swallowed without due mastication and insalivation, and consequently its digestion is insured. Attrition, or cold blast wheat, coarsely ground and unbolted, contains all the natural nutritive elements of the wheat. Besides this, it possesses the mechanical properties which distend the intestines, promoting their peristaltic action; it is therefore antidotal to dyspepsia. For children it is specially valuable, and its substitution for common bread, and the use of fruits instead of flesh food, until the deciduous teeth shall have given place to the permanent denture, would be of incalculable benefit and would contribute to the production of good teeth. "The early loss of these organs," says Dr. Angell, "is conclusive evidence that the prevailing system of dietetics is radically wrong."

Government Aid to Artisan Schools.—In England government aid is given toward the support of science schools for artisans and mechanics, a sum of money being granted to the teacher according to the number of students whom he succeeds in getting through the government examination. Furthermore, in order to encourage the students, valuable prizes are presented to those who obtain first-class certificates at the examinations, which, it may be added, are not competitive, that is to say, if every student succeeds in obtaining the requisite percentage of marks, all obtain what are termed Queen's prizes. If the class be one in which scientific apparatus is required, the Government pays half the cost of such apparatus. Already above 50,000 young men attain a respectable proficiency in one or more branches of practical science every year. In "Chambers's Journal," from which the foregoing particulars are taken, we find the following interesting account of the rise and progress of one of these science schools for young artisans: "In the town in which this school is situated, a few spirited young men determined to have a class during the winter. Their scheme at first met with some opposition, but the young men were bent on extending to their town the advantages which the Government of the country hold forth to the industrial classes to educate themselves; and, ere the first days of winter had gone, the class became an accomplished fact. The difficulty experienced in obtaining the requisite instruments for the class was got over partly by means of the aid from Government, and partly by the ingenuity of the young men themselves, who constructed several of the more expensive pieces of apparatus. A great deal can be done in this way. At the very lowest computation, one half of the apparatus might be extemporized by the teacher, and, if (as was done in the town under consideration) the construction of every article were carefully explained to the students, it would give them a grasp and familiarity with the subject which they could not otherwise obtain. The subject being entirely new to every one of the students, their attention was kept up, and their interest in the work never allowed to flag, by an unsparing use of the apparatus in performing as many experiments as possible. It turned out, however, that those students who were likely to fail at the government examination would do so not because their information was defective, but because of their inability to put their thoughts into writing. From want of practice they experience so much difficulty in arranging their facts in intelligible sentences, that one half of their available time has passed before they have completed the answer to the first question on the examination paper. This difficulty was got over by giving the students questions to work at home, and having a written examination every month during the course of the session. The result proved the efficacy of this arrangement. Nearly sixty students have been examined in the first stage of the subject, and there has not been a single failure."

Japanese Archaeology.—In a report of a lecture by Professor E. S. Morse, published in the "Tokio Times," we find the following list of human bones found in the Kitchen-midden at Omori, their presence, together with other circumstances, indicating, in the opinion of the Professor, that the locality was once inhabited by cannibals (see "Popular Science Monthly," vol. xiv., p. 257): Right humerus; length of fragment, 195 millimetres; proximal end gone. Left humerus; length of fragment, 215 mm.; both ends gone. Left humerus; length of fragment, 160 mm.; both ends gone. Right ulna; length of fragment, 200 mm.; distal end gone. Right ulna; length of fragment, 180 mm.; both ends gone. Right radius; length of fragment, 80 mm.; upper portion only. Right femur; length of fragment, 150 mm.; proximal end and portion of shaft only. Right femur; length of fragment, 270 mm.; both ends gone. Right femur; length of fragment, 280 mm.; both ends gone. Right femur; length of fragment, 107 mm.; upper portion of shaft. Right femur; length of fragment, 304 mm.; articular surfaces broken; child. Left femur; length of fragment, 160 mm.; shaft only. Left femur; length of fragment, 270 mm.; great trochanter and head and distal end gone; child. Left femur; length of fragment, 85 mm.; lower portion only; articular surface gone; child. Right tibia; length of fragment, 135 mm.; upper portion of shaft. Right fibula; length of fragment, 205 mm.; both ends broken. Fifth right metatarsal; length, 65 mm.; distal articular surface partially gone. Left lower maxillary. Left parietal.

How the Humming-Bird feeds.—Mr. A. R. Wallace's account of the way in which the humming-bird takes its food, whether nectar or insects, would appear to be erroneous in the light of the observations made by W. H. Ballou, of Evanston, Illinois. According to Wallace, "the tubular and retractile tongue enables the bird to suck up honey from the nectaries of flowers, and also to capture small insects; but whether the latter pass down the tubes, or are entangled in the fibrous tips and thus drawn back into the gullet, is not known." Mr. Ballou's observations are recorded in the "American Naturalist." He attracted to his house two humming-birds by a saucer of sirup placed on the windowsill, to which the birds would come every day to satisfy their hunger. They always alighted on the edge of the saucer, and lapped the sirup as a dog laps water. The question whether insects "pass down the tubes or are entangled in the fibrous tips and are thus drawn back into the gullet" was also solved by Mr. Ballou. Insects too large to pass through these tubes being placed in their way, the birds were observed to take them as readily as smaller ones. The insects were evidently secured by adhesion to the saliva of the tongue-tips, and thence drawn into the gullet. The author thinks that the tubes of the tongue connect with the lungs rather than with the digestive passage. These interesting observations were abruptly terminated one day by the coming of a third "hummer"—a male—who drove the others from the window, and, in a fit of rage, darted at one of them, and thrust his bill well through its body; both then fell to the ground dead.

Wines as Intoxicants.—Supposing two wines, a white wine and a red, to contain the same proportion of alcohol, may the one be more intoxicating than the other? That such is the case appears from a communication to the London "Spectator" by Samuel James Capper, who declares it to be an incontestable fact that in all white wine districts, and of course in all cider producing countries, drunkenness is much more prevalent than where red wine is grown. Mr. Capper quotes the observations of a lady who was in the habit of spending six months of the year in a château on the Loire, while the other six months were spent on an estate near Dinan. "She assured me," writes Mr. Capper, "that the difference in the matter of sobriety was most marked between the peasants on the Loire, whose habitual beverage was red wine, and the Normans and Bretons, who drink cider, to the exclusion of everything else, even water." He adds that "in the Pays de Vaud the abundant supply of white wine is admitted by all thoughtful inhabitants to be a great curse. Very few laboring men attain old age, their nervous systems breaking down entirely, through their intemperate use of the product of the smiling vineyards that line the shores of Lake Leman. An hotel proprietor of great experience assured me that he found it better in every way to supply his servants and laborers with a cheap red wine from France than to let them drink the white wine of the country." Mr. Capper accounts for the difference in the effects of red and white wine by the fact that the former is very rich in tannin, which is absent in the latter. The tannin exercises an astringent influence, and clones the pores of the stomach, thus preventing the alcohol from going straight to the brain, as it does in the case of white wine.

Grief in a Chimpanzee.—That the chimpanzee is capable of feeling grief, regret for the death of a companion, Mr. A. E. Brown holds to be proved by the behavior of the surviving one of a pair of those animals kept for some time in the Zoological Garden of Philadelphia. The animals had been very much attached to each other; they never quarreled, and, if occasion required one to be handled with any degree of force, the other was always prepared to take its part. After the death of the female, her consort made many attempts to rouse her, and when this was found to be impossible his rage and-grief were piteous. Tearing the hair, or rather snatching at the short hair on his head, had always been one of his common expressions of extreme anger, and he was now seen to do this frequently; but the ordinary yell of rage which he set up at first finally changed to a cry before unheard by the keeper, and which may be represented by hah—ah—ah—ah—ah, uttered somewhat under the breath, and with a plaintive sound like a moan. He made repeated efforts to awaken his dead companion, lifting up her head and hands, pushing her violently, and rolling her over. After the body had been removed from the cage he became more quiet, and remained so as long as his keeper was with him, but, catching sight of the body once when the door was opened, and again when it was carried past the front of the cage, he became violent, and cried for the rest of the day. The day following he sat still most of the time and moaned continually; but this gradually passed away, and from that time forward he has manifested a sense of a change in his surroundings only by a more devoted attachment to his keeper and a longer fit of anger when he leaves him.

Sensibility of the Eye to Light.—A highly interesting series of experiments on the sensibility of the eye to light is described by Charpentier, in a communication to the Paris Academy of Sciences. With the aid of a special apparatus for graduating at will the intensity of the incident rays, he finds that if the intensity be gradually increased from zero the sensation is developed after a certain minimum degree has been reached. But, if the intensity of the stimulus be now as gradually diminished, the eye will continue to perceive it till it has fallen to one third or one fourth of the original minimum. In producing the initial sensation a certain amount of light has, so to speak, been wasted in putting the machinery in motion. Further, if the eye has been carefully shielded from the light for some minutes before performing the experiment, it will be capable of perceiving light which is fifty or even one hundred times less intense than that required to produce a luminous sensation. This enormous difference is equally manifested whether monochromatic or white light be employed. Now, if we apply a similar test to the sensation of color, we find that for the chromatic as for the luminous stimulus a certain minimum is needed to produce the sensation, which still continues to be excited when the intensity of the stimulus is progressively diminished. So far, the two sensations, of light and color, obey the same law. But if we proceed to compare the sensitiveness of the eye in full activity with that of the eye which has been allowed a period of absolute rest, we no longer find any such increase in its susceptibility to the chromatic stimulus as was observed in the case of light. This result is altogether opposed to the current opinion that the sensation excited by white light is really a resultant of the simultaneous development of several determinate color sensations; it shows, on the contrary, that the sensation of light is altogether independent of that of color, and really a simpler kind of reaction on the part of the visual apparatus.

"Oil on the Troubled Waters."—The fishermen of the Shetland Isles, as we learn from a writer in "Chambers's Journal," are wont, when in utmost peril during a storm, to throw oil on the waters to still them. They crush in their hands the livers of any ling or cod they may have caught, and keep throwing them astern and around them. "The effect," we are told, "is magical. The waves are not lessened in size; but they no longer break, and it is only from their breaking close to the boat and so being dashed in upon her and filling her that there is danger. The rapidity with which the oil spreads over a considerable space of sea around is marvelous, and scarcely to be credited except by one who has witnessed the phenomenon." An expedient so simple might often be of invaluable service in saving life and property. The difficulty and peril, for instance, of launching a boat from a sinking ship in a storm are mostly caused by the wind breaking the waves over the boat and filling her or dashing her against the vessel's side. "The danger of such a mishap would unquestionably be greatly lessened by throwing overboard some oil, which ought always to be kept handy. Boats also going from one ship to the assistance of another in distress, and life-boats on their way to a wreck, and boarding it, might often with very great advantage use a little oil, if its effects were only better known. Another case in which oil might be of the greatest service is when a man accidentally falls or is washed over-board. Life-buoys are thrown into the sea, the ship is brought to as quickly as possible, boats are lowered and a search made; but, before all this can be done, the vessel has run a considerable distance, and, although the poor struggler in the water may be a good swimmer and able to keep afloat for some time, the great difficulty is to find the exact spot where he is to be sought for. A life-buoy or a man's head is a small object to descry among heaving waves and white foam. If life-buoys were constructed so as to contain a small portion of oil in a little receptacle or India-rubber bag attached to them, to be punctured with a knife before being thrown overboard, the effect would be not only to prevent the sea from breaking over the castaway, so making it easier for him to keep afloat, but would indicate to the searchers almost the exact spot where to look for him."