Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/March 1886/Popular Miscellany


The Real Nature of "Prodigies."—Mr. C. F. Cox has published, in the "Journal" of the New York Microscopical Society, a most interesting paper on "The So-called Prodigies of Earlier Ages." He believes that the stories of wonderful phenomena and portents with which the old books abound have a certain interest and value to the student and philosopher of to-day, "because they furnish landmarks in the progress of observation, and give us clews to that credulous state of the human mind which seems to have necessarily preceded: the foundation of inductive reasoning." Themere historian of scientific discovery will also find in them what he must believe to be truthful statements of facts, mingled with distorted and erroneous interpretations and many unintentional misstatements of what were thought to be facts; and he may employ himself with some profit in separating the true from the false. Mr. Cox cites from a variety of books, particularly from Wolffhart's illustrated "Chronicle," a large list of wonderful appearances, which he divides into thirteen classes, for each of which he finds a particular way of accounting with an approach to satisfactoriness. Thus, the sweating and weeping of images, altars, etc., may be regarded as exaggerated cases of the condensation of vapor upon them. The bleeding of stones, shields, etc., was most probably the growth of the red lichen upon them, though it may in some cases have been rust. Showers of earth, chalk, ashes, etc., hardly need accounting for; and rains of brimstone may have been clouds of pollen, spores, or other yellow vegetable products. Showers of oil were probably not showers at all, but marks of supposed showers in the shape of greasy spots on the earth or stones or plants, or iridescent films on water; the appearance is sometimes produced by the growth of gelatinous protophytes, like the nostocs. The flowing of oil in brooks, etc., is also accounted for, as it would always be now, as a case of iridescence. Stories of showers of milk may have originated in the appearance of white spots, generally caused by growths of fungus, on leaves. The flowing of milk from the earth, in streams, etc., might be in most cases the superstitious interpretation of so simple a fact as the mixture of calcareous earth with ordinary running water; or, under favorable conditions, some of the lower forms of life might multiply so enormously as to give a milky hue to considerable bodies of water, as they do constantly under our own observation in a smaller way. The spotting of bread, grain, leaves, stones, etc., with blood, is a phenomenon easily accounted for by a very slight knowledge of the various forms and habits of the red and orange-yellow fungi. The flowing of blood in the ocean, rivers, springs, etc., is to be accounted for in some instances by the presence, in unusual quantities, of red algæ. "Showers of blood" may be referred to similar algæ; or deposits referable to such showers may be produced, as was known to be the case at Aix-la-Chapelle in July, 1608, by butterfly-chrysalides undergoing transformation, when large drops of a blood-colored liquid exude from them. Red snow is known to be a protococcus. "Showers of flesh"—one occurred in Kentucky in 1875, and was so accounted for—may occur when buzzards, having gorged themselves with carrion, disgorge it as they fly in the air. "Thus easily"—in the Kentucky case it was the flesh of a horse, and the buzzards were seen—"was a modern prodigy disposed of; and quite as rationally, we now see, might we dispose of all ancient prodigies which were not mendacious fabrications, if only we could catechise witnesses and apply scientific methods to the examination of such facts as were found to remain."

Study out of School.—On the question of study out of school-hours, Mr. L. W. Parish, of the Iowa State Teachers' Association, maintains that education should look to the most natural, complete development of physical, mental, and moral qualities. Neither side should be preferred at the expense of another, but all three should be developed hand in hand. To secure the proportionate and therefore most effective training of the intellectual powers, Little or nothing is required, during the first three or four years of school-life, which a skillful and faithful teacher can not accomplish without forcing book-work upon the children during the evening hours, or during the time that belongs of right to physical development, or the performance of home duties. But, that the work may be done thus, unfavorable circumstances must be removed, and both pupil and teacher must do their parts. The pupil must be regular and industrious, and the teacher must show herself mistress of the best methods of presenting topics of instruction. On account of some irregular and unwholesome influences operating upon schools, more out-of-school study than is necessary or good is demanded, but an intelligent co-working of teachers, parents, physicians, and the local press ought to cause a steady decrease of it, and an increase in systematic physical and moral training.

The Search for the Trans-Neptunian Planet.—Mr. David P. Todd, of the Lawrence Observatory, Amherst, Massachusetts, has published a memoir on his search for the trans-Neptunian planet. He uses the definite article—the—in speaking of this body, hypothetical though it still may be, because he regards the evidence of its existence as well-founded, while, during all the time he has been engaged in the search of it, nothing has weakened his conviction of its existence in about that part of the sky he has assigned to it. The independent researches in cometary perturbations by Professor Forbes have furthermore conducted him to a result identical with Mr. Todd's—a coincidence, it is suggested, not to be lightly set aside as pure accident. That five years have elapsed since this coincidence was remarked, and the planet is still unfound, does not make it evident that the existence of the planet is merely fanciful, for the particular spot in which its presence is suspected has received very little scrutiny with telescopes competent to such a search. The time has now come when, by the help of the developments and improvements that have been made in astronomical photography, the search can be profitably undertaken by any observer having the rare combination of time, enthusiasm, and the necessary appliances. In aid of any such search, Mr. Todd has published a record of his observations of the indicated region, with the twenty-six-inch refractor telescope of the Naval Observatory, accompanied by exact transcriptions of the "finder" diagrams, and of diagrams showing the relative positions of objects.

Distribution of Trees in Canada.—Mr. A. T. Drummond, in a paper read before the British Association last year, on "The Distribution of Canadian Forest-Trees," ascribes an important part to the existence of large bodies of water in the eastern part of the country, and of conditions under which a much milder climate is given, with a higher range of trees, on the western side of the continent. Then, in the United States and Canada the mountain-ranges are somewhat continuous, and have a northern and southern trend, affording an opportunity to the northern trees to extend southward on their flanks, and to the southern trees to range northward in the valleys; and this has given rise to a more extended distribution than could otherwise occur. Another important element in the distribution is the chain of the lakes, which forms a barrier to the free extension into Canada of the southern forms common in our "lake States." Nevertheless, the currents of the lakes have been the means of distributing seeds on the jutting headlands of the northern coast, where a few southern forms have been found. On the other hand, the cooling effect of such large bodies of water encourages the growth of northern species, and thus around the coasts of Lake Superior the flora includes a few semi-Arctic plants, though inland these all disappear, and the vegetation is of a more northern temperate type. Only a few trees have the faculty of making themselves at home over as wide an extent as some herbaceous plants; and these are those usually which have light or winged seeds. One reason for the different development of this faculty in trees and herbs is probably that the seeds of trees are of greater size and weight, and less easily carried away from their parent. A break in the westward extension of a considerable number of the forest-trees occurs beyond Lake Superior and Red River. This is ascribed to the greater dryness of the climate west of that lake, the effect of which is also seen in the alleged superior quality of the wood of the aspen and spruce trees. Too much moisture in the atmosphere has also its results in determining the range of trees. The same causes which prevent the range westward beyond Red River of many of the Eastern trees, also prevail in restricting the eastward range of the British Columbia trees beyond the influence of the Rocky Mountains.

Local Climates of Exposure.—Professor W. Mattieu Williams, in the "Gentleman's Magazine," quotes with approval Dr. Frankland's recommendation of elevated snow covered districts as winter sanitariums, and adds some observations of his own. Pertinently to the subject of reflection from waters, Professor Williams notices the position of Torbay, so celebrated for its mild winter climate, as on the one part of the Devonshire coast that has the most direct exposure to the east. "It hugs the east winds that blow directly into it from the open sea, and has no protection whatever from them. Paignton is the most directly exposed and the warmest part of the bay; the next is Torquay, or rather the Paignton side of Torquay." The mildness of the Torquay climate is also promoted by favorable inclination to reflection of the early morning sun-heat of the slopes, and by the tempering to which the east winds are subjected before reaching the land. At Broadstairs "is a little sandy bay backed by cliffs and facing directly east. I have several times on a sunny day in winter-time walked along the sands from the Granville side of Ramsgate to Broadstairs, and have been much interested in observing the sudden change of climate experienced on turning the projecting cliff forming the south horn of the bay. Ladies sit on the sands there with needlework and novels in the month of December." The sea-reflection is in many cases powerfully supplemented by cliff-reflection. "When the aspect is due south, as at Hastings, it overrides it altogether. The peculiar climate of Hastings is, I think, entirely due to this, for here we have the anomaly of sea cliffs that have been deserted by the sea, which has left sufficient fore-shore for houses to be built between it and the cliffs. In the winter these cliffs warm these houses by reflecting the southward mid-day sun; in the summer they roast them. Not only do cliffs reflect some of the sun's rays during the day, but they absorb the remainder and give it out after the sun has set. . . . Other local climatic influences may be noted; among them the effect of a stretch of dry sand above high-water mark and at the foot of cliffs."

The Quaternary Moose of New Jersey.—Professor W. B. Scott has described, before the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, a very large extinct moose or elk, the almost complete fossil skeleton of which, now in the Museum of Princeton College, was discovered in a shell-marl deposit under a bog at Mount Hermon, New Jersey. With the exception of five caudal vertebræ, every important bone of the skeleton that is missing is represented by its fellow of the opposite side, so that it has been hardly possible to go astray in making the necessary restorations. The skeleton is of an adult but not old individual, and appears to belong to the same species with one described by Wistar, and called by Harlan Corvus Americanus, which, together with some metacarpals described by Leidy, is preserved in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. This species can not, however, be included in any known genus, as these are at present defined, and for that reason Mr.. Scott has proposed for it the name Cervalces Americanus. The most obvious peculiarity of the skeleton is the great length of the legs, which gives the animal a stilted appearance, while the thorax is shallow and the neck short The shoulders are higher than the hips, as in the moose, and unlike those of the stag. The combined length of the head and neck shows that in the ordinary position of the legs the muzzle would not reach the ground by fourteen or fifteen inches. Measured in the same manner, the moose's muzzle reaches to within about ten inches from the ground, and that of Megaceros to eight or nine inches. This and some other features of the structure indicate that the habits of the animal, and to some degree its appearance, were those of the moose. Its short neck shows that it would have great difficulty in grazing, and so probably lived by browsing upon shrubs and trees. This was aided by a more or less prehensile upper lip, which the character of the nasal opening shows to have been more proboscis-like than in the deer, though far less so than in the moose. Morphologically, the fossil is of interest for the light which it seems to throw upon the question of the genus Alees, and its relations to the typical deer.

Many Drugs: Few Remedies.—In an address on "Many Drugs: Few Remedies," Dr. George K. Welch, of Keyport, New Jersey, draws a highly-colored picture of the helplessness of the average medical practice in the face of disease. The schools increase and the graduates swarm, "but how many great physicians can you name, and which are the diseases borne under the annual spring-flood of doctors; and yet, where is the young doctor who does not believe in the magic of drugs, and the old doctor, if he be a wise man, who does not look upon the most of them as mischievous, and the minority as deserving of restriction? The pathologist is skeptical of them all. With laborious zeal we study diseases. . . . We anatomize and compare, and the professor awes with learned length while he discourses of the ills he can not cure. . . . Do we, waiting behind the eye of Koch, know anything of tuberculosis, or believe that he does? Does not the ravage go on? And who has won eminence in curing yellow fever? Arc men no longer in dread of cholera? And the exanthemata—does not the grewsome pendulum of disease sweep into and out of every neighborhood about once in five years? Who cures rheumatism, or typhoid fever, or chronic Bright's disease? And where is the stout heart that never failed before a patient burning and broiling in the horrible slow flame of pyæmia? And jet, who refrains from prescribing? The witches move one way about the caldron, and we go the other; they throw in the drugs that brew the poisons, and we throw in the counter-poisons. Stillé and Maisch'a 'Dispensatory' has a list of one hundred and fifty remedies for rheumatism, a disease which is as likely to become chronic with treatment as without it. Everybody has a specific, from your grandaunt with teas, fomentations, and flannel, to the last German doctor with forty grains of salycilic acid to the dose. . . . The trouble is, medical thought moves too much toward specifics." Improvement must come, partly by enforcing the responsibility of every physician to all, or by the establishment of a college of experimental medicine, with a system of registration for correcting errors of observation; or, in other words, by adopting for the study of disease the methods of the experimental physiologists.

Reform of Juries.—The causes of the decline of juries and the remedy for it are considered by Mr. Edwin Young, of the Albany bar, in a paper on "The Jury in Modern Corporate Life." The theory of the institution, that "twelve disinterested freeholders of the neighborhood, of average intelligence and virtue, are best qualified to determine issues of fact," ought, if carried out, to secure an ideal tribunal. It does not secure it, but something far different. The reason of the deterioration that has come over juries is easily found in the exemptions allowed by law, some of them really unnecessary and even improper when the true view of the case is taken, which furnish a loop-hole through which a considerable body of our best citizens escape from service; in the abuse of the power and discretion of the court in granting excuses on the ground of "business engagements," or other trivial pretexts; in the collusion of officers to keep names off the jury-lists; and in public apathy and unwillingness to serve. Hence jury-duty has to be performed largely by persons who arc not worthy of it, and who arc often regardless of the obligation of an oath. "To revive its usefulness." Mr. Young says, "the jury must be purged. As an institution handed down by our forefathers, it is amply sufficient for the purposes for which it was intended. It is only in its abuse that we suffer, and that abuse can only be remedied by a revival of public spirit, and the realization of the fact that private interests are best subserved by the devotion of a part of our time to public duties."

Colored Audition.—M. A. de Rochas has published some notes on "Colored Audition," a faculty which some persons are alleged to possess of perceiving sensations of color in connection with the hearing of particular sounds. To most of the persons who have reported to him on the subject, acute sounds and the vowel i (French) appear red or of a brilliant color, but the variations in the matter are infinite. One lady associates its especial color with each note of the musical scale, each vowel, and each digit; and she never hears any sum mentioned without the colors of all the figures it contains passing in succession before her eyes. Another lady Bees names colored—John, bright red; Joseph, very dark blue; Louis, red; Louisa, blue; and Lucy, yellow; while all names ending in us are green. An engineer associates a color with the name of every day of the week. To him, Monday is a gray day; Tuesday and Wednesday, white; Thursday, yellow; Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, dark red. Most of the persons known to have this faculty have had it from infancy.

The National Museum.—By a "Handbook" just published by Ernest Ingersoll and his associates, Messrs. Taylor and Ainsworth, the National Museum at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, is shown to be a group of most interesting and varied collections. It started with the remarkable and heterogeneous accumulation of curiosities at the Patent-Office which once formed one of the great attractions for visitors to the national capital. The Smithsonian Institution having been organized and housed, and the Patent-Office having become too full of the models and goods legitimately its own, the curiosities were turned over to the care of the Smithsonian agents. To these collections have been added from time to time—after the Centennial Exhibition, the government exhibits of other countries; the zoological treasures of the Fish Commission; specimens of natural resources from Territorial surveys; the mineralogical, geological, archæological, anthropological, and natural history treasures that have been gathered in the course of the Government surveys which have been systematically carried on over our whole domain; and various articles, special collections, etc., gathered from different quarters of the globe. The museum is housed in dust-proof plate-glass cases, in a building which has been constructed expressly for it, and which is described as having been filled up from the Greek cross radiating from a central rotunda into a complete square, the exterior walls of which arc three hundred and seventy-five feet in length. The various collections have been scientifically and topically classified and arranged, and are accessible in the several departments of geology, mineralogy, chemistry, economic geology, and metallurgy, as representing the inorganic world; and of botany, zoölogy, anthropology, archæology, ethnology, and comparative technology, as representing the organic world; each of the departments being further subdivided according to its various branches. The museum is under the care of Dr. Spencer F. Baird as director, and G. Brown Goode as assistant director, with twenty-four curators, all but nine of whom serve without expense to it.

Poetry and Reality In Zuñi.—Dr. R. W. Shufeldt, U. S. Army, in a sketch, in "Forest and Stream," of an excursion through Zuñi-land, speaks of his entrance into the pueblo as like stepping from the pictures—which we have in the descriptions of Mr. Cushing and others—into the reality. "There were the squarish houses all piled up on one another, and the chimney-pots and openings on the roof; there bristled up in many directions the tops of the ladders; there were the Zuñis themselves on the roofs with others in the streets, bearing on their heads the very jars, the like of which I had so often seen my artist friends in the National Museum illustrating; in short, here was Zuñi, for it has not its counterpart in all the world. At our approach a dozen dogs raised the alarm, and off scampered a group of half-naked children of both sexes with their black, negro-like heads of hair (the biggest part of some of them) blowing in the wind. Strange as it may seem, our first inquiry was, how came the hill there upon which this ancient pueblo was erected? The plain for miles about it is almost as level as the surface of a lake. Imagine the impression it made upon us when, after our examination, the undeniable fact stared us in the face that although Zuñi may have originally been started on a slight rise in the plain, yet its present elevation—between thirty and forty feet above the datum plane—is due largely in some places to the accumulated excrement of the burros, and I suspect, too, to some degree, the refuse from the houses! This condition can better be seen at the pueblo of Las Nutrias, where the entire lower stories of some of their houses are covered above their roofs by a like guano deposit, while additional stories have been built on and above them. In Zuñi this condition is more particularly the case on the side of the pueblo facing toward the missionary-house. In this situation the side of the hill has been cut away to make room for a garden, and its composition is easily studied. I am not aware that this fact has been published before; but it seems hardly possible that a thing so evident has been overlooked. We were disappointed at finding the pueblo so nearly deserted. Not more than one house in ten was occupied, as every able-bodied man and woman was at this time of the year away planting wheat, as we saw them at Las Nutrias. Upon leaving home, a Zuñi closes the little low door to his house by piling a quantity of stones up in front of it. He also takes the precaution to plaster up with clay the opening upon the roof. Such fastening is considered a sacred seal, and no honest one would think of breaking it any more than we would a seal to a letter. We saw all the empty houses closed up in this way, and it lent the pueblo a terribly deserted appearance." All of the poetry of the scene was taken out by the remark of one of Dr. Shufeldt's companions, an eminent professor, as they turned to go away, that "he had seen enough of that mass of hovels on a dung-hill, inhabited by people whose habits and customs are too frightful to think of." In fact, every law known to sanitary science seemed to be violated at the pueblo.

The Fine Arts in Burmah.—Several of the fine arts flourish to a certain degree in Burmah, although none of them are as highly developed as they are in India. Weaving is very ancient and is widely diffused throughout the country, yet the weavers of the finest and most highly adorned fabrics are foreigners, the descendants of slaves brought from Manipur, In drawing, Burmans who are trained to any art are masters of the pencil, although they have little idea of perspective or of the balance of light and shade. While the details are conventional, the general idea is the creation of the workman, and the pictures are often full of life and humor. Decoration of funeral-pyres with paintings, sometimes extremely grotesque, is an important branch of this art. Brass-founders make images of Gotama, bells of various characters, and the flat, crescent-shaped gongs which are used for religious purposes. Wood-carving has a very extensive range of variety in character. Some of the work in foliage and figures in the Buddhist monasteries is remarkably beautiful, as well in the delicacy of the curves as in the lightness and grace of the open tracery. An Institute of Industrial Arts has been established at Rangoon, to develop this industry. A curious and intricate effect is obtained in carving some articles in ivory, when "the outside of the specimen is carved with foliage and flowers, through the-interstices of which the inside is hollowed out nearly to the center, where a figure is carved in situ. The figure looks as if it had been carved separately and inserted into a flowery bower, but closer examination shows that this is not the case, and the men may be at any time seen carving the figure through the opening of the tracery." Every village larger than a hamlet has its goldsmith and silversmith. In the filigree ornaments made by goldsmiths, the burnished gold retains its proper color, but the other gold is dyed red with tamarind-juice, a barbaric custom to which the Burmese cling tenaciously. The reason given for it is that no other metal but gold will assume this particular ruddy color when treated with tamarind-juice; it may in fact be regarded as the hallmark of Burmese jewelry. The silver-work of Burmah is much esteemed by connoisseurs all over the world; the artists treat this metal so as to obtain the greatest possible effect that the nature of the material allows. The trade is not a paying one, but the leading artists are devoted to their art, and are quite content if they gain enough to live on, provided that they keep their position at the head of the craft. Many of them are proficient in niello-work, in which the design appears as if drawn in silver outline on a black ground.

An Earthquake Experience.—A French gentleman residing at Mendoza, in the Argentine Republic, gives a graphic description in "La Nature" of the earthquake that took place there on the 30th of March, 1885, at about half-past ten in the evening. He was reading and smoking, when one of the sashes of his window opened all at once and immediately closed again with noise. He thought a dog had come in through the window, and bent over to look for the intruder under his desk. The window opened again, and he was obliged to hold on to his desk, while his chair leaned over with him. He straightened himself again, and was thrown to the right. At the same time his jaws came together and he bit off his pipe-stem, while he felt a pain in the pit of his stomach, like that of sea-sickness. Then the thought occurred to him that it was an earthquake. Six seconds afterward he heard a noise like that of a distant locomotive letting off steam, followed by the howling of dogs and the noise of the wind through the plantain-trees. Then he saw the angle of the wall veer slowly to the left, then return to its place, so speedily that he was scared and ran to the door to get out. The door would not open. The dogs kept on howling louder than ever. He burst the door open, and, running out, found all the people in the streets, mostly in their night-dresses. Three violent shocks were felt. The writer of the account believes that a fourth shock would have destroyed the town. The sky was afterward obscured with fog; and, for thirty seconds after the last shock, a subterranean noise was heard like the rumbling of a railroad-train in the distance.