Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/November 1887/Popular Miscellany


Recent Advances in Sanitary Science.—According to a review of the subject in "Nature," the principal fields in which advance has been recently made in sanitary science are the etiology of such diseases as Asiatic cholera, typhoid fever, diphtheria, and tubercular disorders of the lungs. The organism observed by Koch may not yet have been proved to be the actual cause of cholera; but it has been shown to be different in its mode of growth from all other organisms asserted to be identical with it, and is therefore diagnostic of the disease. In any event, the validity of the measures relied upon to prevent cholera from breaking out and spreading is not affected by the results of Koch's researches. While no micro organism has yet been found which can be asserted to be the peculiar origin of typhoid fever, the view that that disease arises from a specific contagion, and is not propagated de novo, is gaining ground; and we have learned so much regarding the mode of origin and spread of the disease, that the discovery of its active cause would probably not greatly affect the measures now taken for its prevention. No results that can be exactly formulated have been obtained respecting diphtheria. It is not invariably dependent on insanitary conditions, and some facts indicate that the presence in the air of products of coal-combustion is unfavorable to it. The character of the seasons when it is most prevalent favors the theory that its specific contagium is a mold or fungus, which flourishes most strongly in a damp and smokeless air. Koch's discovery of the Bacillus tuberculosis as the specific contagium of tubercular disease places that malady in the class of contagious disorders. The fact that milk has been found capable of conveying disease directly or indirectly suggests the prudence of boiling it whenever suspicion of danger exists. Advances in domestic sanitation have mostly been limited to applications of principles already ascertained, especially in the drainage and water-supply of dwellings. The belief is steadily gaining ground that water once polluted by sewage can not be regarded as safe for drinking. The introduction of constant supplies of water into towns has been of great benefit. The separation of rainfall from sewage is growing in favor. The purification and utilization of sewage are receiving increased attention. The present condition of knowledge on the subject demands that sewage should, wherever it is possible, be utilized on land, as manure, in the production of crops and dairy produce; failing in this, it should be freed from its solids by precipitation, and then purified on land laid out as filter-beds. In all cases, efficient purification, not the production of crops, should be the controlling object.

Chinese in America.—Professor Stewart Culin, in the American Association, described the characteristics of the Chinese immigrants in America. They all come from the departments of Kwang Chan and Shan-King, in the province of Kwantung. They describe themselves as "Puntis," or natives, as distinguished from the tribes called "Hal-Kus," or "Shangers," who seldom emigrate, and divide themselves into the people of the Sam-Yup (three towns) and those of Sz'-Yup (four towns), from terms applied to different divisions of their native province. The people of the different districts show distinguishing peculiarities of speech and customs. Representatives of some twenty or thirty clans only are found among the immigrants. The stores are the centers around which life in the Chinese colonies revolves, furnishing supplies of Chinese wares, and serving as clubrooms and assembly-halls. Nearly all of the Chinese in America have passed some of their early years at school, where they learned to write some of the characters in their language, and to read it with more or less facility. Among the immigrants from Hoh-Shan and the districts adjacent to Canton are found many of considerable attainments—not men who would be considered scholars in China, but clerks, who are able to read and understand much of the classical literature of their country, and whose sympathies and traditions are allied with those of the literary aristocracy. This class forms a small part, however, of the whole number.

The Table-topped Hills of the Amazon.—To any one ascending the Amazon River, said Mr. James W. Wells, in the Royal Geographical Society, a most noticeable feature strikes his attention, in the table topped hills of the Serras de Erere and Obidos, and the somewhat similar formation on the opposite bank, at the rear of the Santarem. These opposite islands form the walls of the valley through which the river, once probably a great inland lake, has excavated its way to the sea. Their summits, instead of being ridges, extend in the form of undulating savannas far inland, ever ascending, furrowed with hollows and valleys by many a stream or water-course. Strange and interesting as is the appearance of these cliffs of one thousand feet in height, yet they are not exceptional features of the basin of the Amazons; at its farther western extremity, in the Serra de Cupati, bordering on the banks of the Rio Japura, and also on the western face of the Chapada da Mangabeira, are encountered identical formations, and even to the north in Roraima and its brother Kukenam, also exists a somewhat similar appearance. These great, precipitous bluffs, and isolated table-topped hills are indicative, or at least suggestive, of a great denudation that has either long since occurred, or is yet happening. The Chapada da Mangabeira rises gradually and by regular gradients from the San Francisco River to the divide, where it appears as perpendicular walls of sandstone, with flat summits, and looks, when viewed from the east, like gigantic fortresses. The base of these cliffs is composed of a natural earth-slope of the modern débris of the fallen materials of the walls. Evidence is presented that this tableland extended yet farther to the west from twenty to sixty miles. The vegetation and soil of the tops of these miniature Roraimas are precisely similar to those of the great plateau, whereas the vegetation of the surrounding lowlands is quite different in character.

Some Notes about Bees.—A recently published book by Mr. Frank R. Cheshire, lecturer at South Kensington, gives some curious items of information about bees. A lens magnifying fifty times will reveal the tracheae, and also the beautiful "salivary glands," which a skillful operator may extract through the head, after immersing the insect up to its neck in wax. There is considerable discussion among apiarists as to the uses of these glands, in which is incidentally included the question whether bees feed their young by regurgitating semi-digested food, or by a glandular system producing a nutritive secretion. Mr. Cheshire finds in the digestive system, in which "the salivary and gastric secretions perform precisely the same functions in both,". . . a most helpful similarity of physical structure between mankind and bees." Bees have, however, the great advantage over mankind of being able to carry a large stock of food and drink in their insides, and of having the power of feeding upon these stores by means of what is called the "stomach-mouth," at pleasure; or, if they choose, they can convert these provisions into building-materials. Their foot is furnished with a very sharp and powerful claw, and with a sort of soft pad that gives out a clammy secretion, by means of which they are able to walk on smooth surfaces. It is by the claws that bees hang one to another in swarming. The cutting off of a bee's head does not apparently of necessity kill it; for "drones in confinement will sometimes live very much longer without their heads than with them." The head, however, is not an unimportant part of the bee, which has a larger proportion of brain than many other insects. The poisonous property of the sting of bees lies in the formic acid it discharges, which is also "probably associated with some other toxic agent." The idea that the bee invariably dies after stinging is a vulgar error. "It will, if allowed time, generally carry its sting away by traveling round upon the wound, giving the instrument a screw-movement until it is free." More usually, however, the bee is not allowed time to travel round, "and she loses not only the sting and the venom-gland and sac, but also the lower portion of the bowel, so that her death follows in an hour or two." We are further informed that no bee inflicts a wound "until she has examined the nature of the surface to be punctured, using a pair of very beautiful organs called palpi, elaborately provided with feeling hairs and thin nerve-ends."

Mr. Edison's Pyromagnetic Dynamo.—Mr. Edison, in his paper, at the American Association, on the "Pyromagnetic Dynamo," after describing the construction and operation of the machine, said that the results thus far obtained lead to the conclusion that the economy of production of electric energy from fuel by the pyromagnetic dynamo will be at least equal to, and probably greater than, that of any of the methods in present use. But the actual output of the dynamo will be less than that of an ordinary dynamo of the same weight. To furnish thirty sixteen-candle lights in a dwelling-house would probably require a pyromagnetic generator weighing two or three tons. Since, however, the new dynamo will not interfere with using the excess of energy of the coal for warming the house itself, and, since there is no attendance needed to keep it running, there would seem to be already a large field of usefulness for it. Moreover, by using the regenerative principle in connection with it, great improvement may be made in its capacity, and its practical utility may very probably equal the interesting scientific principle which it embodies.

Characteristics of Tropical Woods.—Professor R. H. Thurston, describing some Nicaraguan woods in the American Association, said that the tropical and sub-tropical woods are distinguished usually by their extraordinary size, strength, hardness, and solidity, as well as by durability, as against both weather and the attacks of insects. About thirty samples, selected simply by considerations of convenience and previous acquaintance from among an enormous number of probably equally valuable genera, were subjected by the author to special tests. Some of them resembled in appearance and quality mahogany; some, our own yellow pine; others, the oaks and other hard woods of our forests, but excelled them in density, strength, elasticity, and durability. While they may prove of extraordinary value for many purposes, they are often so hard to work that their usefulness is likely to be restricted. The Central American forests contain an enormous store of timber of remarkably fine quality.

Exceptions to the Rule of Laissez-Faire.—Professor Sidgwick read an elaborate paper in the British Association on the economic exceptions to the laissez-faire. Political economy, he said, as commonly understood, includes a general argument showing how wealth tends to be produced most amply and economically in a society in which government confines itself to the protection of person and property and the enforcement of contracts not brought about by force or fraud, leaving individuals free to produce and transfer to others whatever utilities they choose on any terms that may be freely arranged. The argument is, briefly, that in a society so constituted, the regard for self-interest on the part of consumers will lead to the effectual demand of the things that are most useful, and the regard for self-interest on the part of producers will lead to their production at the least cost. It is, however, now generally held that the broad rule of "leave alone," to which the argument points, must in practice be limited by various exceptions. Two classes of these exceptions are distinguished, viz.: (a) those which are due to the limitations under which abstract economic theory has to be applied in the art of government; and (b) those which it is the more direct business of economic theory to analyze and systematize. In class (a) may be distinguished—(1) governmental interference to regulate the education or employment of children; (2) interference for the promotion of morality, health, and culture; (3) interference, not with a view to the economic production of wealth, but with a view to its more equitable distribution (this is often spoken of as "socialistic" or "semisocialistic"); (4) interference on the ground that certain industrial classes are found by experience not to take sufficient care of their private economic interests (this is sometimes spoken of as "paternal legislation"), e. g., restrictions on freedom of contract between landlord and tenant. The same phrase is also applied to (2). As leading cases of class (6) may be noted—(1) where for the production of a certain utility or avoidance of detriment, a combination is required of which the value largely depends on its universality—e. g., protection of lands against floods, protection of useful animals against certain diseases; (2) especially where the combination of a large majority increases the interest which the minority have in standing aloof—e. g., abstinence from certain times, places, or instruments in fishing or hunting for the sake of future supply; (3) where a branch of industry, for technical or other reasons, has a tendency to fall under the conditions of monopoly, total or partial—e. g., provision of gas in towns; (4) where, from the nature of the required utility, its producers could not be remunerated adequately in the ordinary way by free exchange of their commodity—e. g., utility of forests in relation to climate or scientific discoveries; (5) where the process of exchange which would be required to remunerate a certain social service, would seriously detract from its utility, from waste of time or otherwise—e. g., provision of roads and bridges; (6) where government is peculiarly adapted to produce the kind of utility required—e. g., if what is required is security, as in the case of savings-banks, or uniformity, or stability of value, as in the case of currency. It is not argued that government necessarily ought to interfere in all cases that come under these headings; only that the general economic argument for laissez-faire falls away in such cases, wholly or to a great extent, or is balanced by strictly economic considerations on the other side; and that it is important to bear this in mind in discussing any particular practical case.

The Luminous Organs of an Insect.—Dr. Dubois has investigated the light-emitting organs of the cucuyo, or Pyrophorus noctilucus. They are three in number—two prothoracic and one ventral. The prothoracic plates give a good illumination in front, laterally, and above, and serve when the insect walks in the dark; when it flies or swims, its fine abdominal lantern is unmasked, throwing downward an intense light with much greater range. The insect seems to be guided by its own light. If the prothoracic apparatus is quenched on one side with a little black wax, the cucuyo walks in a curve, turning toward the side of the light. If both sides are quenched, it walks hesitatingly and irregularly, feeling the ground with its antennæ, and soon stops. The light gives a pretty long spectrum from the red to the first blue rays; is more green than the light of Lampyris noctiluca, and is capable of photography, but does not develop chlorophyl. No distinct electric action could be traced to the organs. The luminosity does not depend upon oxygen, for it is the same in pure oxygen, in air, in pressures under one atmosphere, and in compound oxygen. The organs are still brilliant when separated from the body, but the power of emission appears to depend upon a supply of water, and it is recoverable, after thorough drying, upon putting the organs again in water. Dr. Dubois found that the photogenic substance is an albuminoid, soluble in water and coagulable with heat, it entering into contact with another substance of the diastase group; part of the energy liberated appears as light.

The Drying up of Siberian Lakes.—Mr. Yadrintseff has furnished the St. Petersburg Geographical Society with evidence, consisting of notes of surveys, and maps made at four different periods, that the lakes in the Aral-Caspian depression have dried up within the last hundred years "at a speed which will surely appear astonishing to geographers." Lake Chany, the largest of the three principal lakes, has much diminished in size. Whole villages have grown on the site formerly occupied by Lake Moloki. Of Lake Abyshkan, which had a length of forty miles from north to south, and a width of seventeen miles, in the earlier years of this century, and whose surface was estimated at five hundred and thirty square miles, only three small ponds have remained. Even twenty-five years ago there were several lakes, ten and eight miles long and wide, where there are now but little ponds. The fate of Lake Abyshkan is substantially repeated in Lake Chebakly, which was represented in 1784 as an oval body forty miles long and three miles wide. Now, the largest of the three ponds which occupy its site is less than two miles wide. The same process is going on throughout the lakes of West Siberia and throughout the Aral-Caspian depression.

Electric Deposition of Dust.—Professor Tyndall observed, in 1870, that when a hot body was held in strongly-illuminated, dusty air, a dust-free space was formed above it, and this may take place even when the body is only slightly warmer than the air. Several hypothetical explanations of the phenomenon have been offered by Dr. Tyndall, Dr. Frankland, and Lord Rayleigh, but they have been inadequate to meet the requirements of the case. Professor Oliver Lodge has sought an explanation by the application of the kinetic theory of gases, and supposes that the dust-particles are kept out of contact with the warm body by means of a differential molecular bombardment of their surfaces. On the other hand, with the singular and not explained exception, that a similar dark plane, but descending, is formed below a moderately cool body, the dust-particles are driven toward, instead of away from, a cold body. This fact has been observed by Mr. Aitken, and applied by himself to the explanation of the deposition of soot in chimneys, and of lamp-black on cold glass. The result of the dust-bombardment of cold bodies may also be seen in the blackening of a wall over hot-water pipes, or of a ceiling over a gas-jet. Smoking of the gas-jet will, of course, provide more material to be deposited, but the dust and smoke in the air are usually ample to effect a sufficient blackening over even a perfectly clear flame. An incandescent electric lamp, hung a foot or so under a white ceiling, will similarly cause a small, black patch. In rooms warmed by radiation, objects are warmer than the air, and keep much dust off themselves. In stove-heated rooms, things are liable to be colder than the air, and thus get exceedingly dusty. Professor Lodge supposes, also, that electrical conditions may have much to do with the matter, and relates several experiments which he has made that go to confirm this view. One of them is made with a minute, vertical water-jet, which usually scatters into drops and falls in a shower-like rain; but hold a piece of rubbed sealing-wax a yard or so distant from the place where the jet breaks, and the drops at once cease to scatter, but fall in large blobs, as in a thunder-shower. These principles are susceptible of application in many processes where dust is generated in quantities that make it a nuisance for laying it. Thus, chimney-flues may be fitted with spikes or wire nettings, which will cause the smoke to be condensed, and the dust to be deposited. So, on a larger scale, the introduction of electrical action into a cloud is supposed to give rise to rain.

Origin of Strong Liquors.—Strong liquors are a modern invention. The ancients knew of nothing more powerful than lightly fermented wines, and have left warnings enough of the abuse of them. Alcohol was not discovered till the seventh century, although an older story exists of a monk, Marcus, who collected and condensed in wool the steam of heated white-wine, and then pressed out from the wool a balsam which he applied to the wounds of those who fell at the siege of Rheims, in the reign of Clovis I. He also mixed this balsam with honey, and produced a cordial which brought the moribund back to life. Clovis, however, did not wait for the approach of death, before claiming his share of the cordial. According to Dr. Stanford Chaille, the distillation of spirits from wine was not discovered till the twelfth century, and spirits did not come into common use as drinks until the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. Professor Arnoldus de Villanova, in the fourteenth century, made a panacea of the water-of-life, which gave sweet breath, and fortified the memory, besides being good for sore eyes, the toothache, and the gout, and having other wonderful properties. Distilled spirits came into use in London in 1450, and had to be prohibited in 1494. Michael Savonarola produced a treatise on making the water-of life in the fifteenth century, which became a standard authority on the subject, and was followed by the work of Matthioli de Sienna. These books gave the start to brandy making in Italy, whence the trade extended to France. About 1520 the Irish usquebaugh began to acquire reputation in Eng. land. Before 1601, "brand-wine" had begun to be distilled in the Low Countries from apples, pears, and malt; and in that year an ordinance was passed at Tournay forbidding the sale of the liquor except by apothecaries, partly "because of the dearness of corn, and partly because of the drunkenness which this cheap brand-wine caused, to the great prejudice not alone of homes and lives, but to the extreme danger of the souls of its drinkers, many of whom had died without confession." The art of extracting alcohol from other substances, was gradually discovered, and liquors of various names came into use. The trade grew great, and the present century has seen a new development of it in the general application of the art of "doctoring" liquors, or adulterating.

Are there Catastrophes?—Read Mr. J. H. Kerry-Nichols's account of one only of the many things that took place in New Zealand on a June day only about a year ago: "The most remarkable feature in the same line of volcanic action was the extraordinary convulsion which had changed the whole conformation of the country around Rotomahana, and had transformed the hot, green lake with its marvelous terraces into a roaring crater, from which rose a column of steam nearly a mile and a quarter in diameter, that ascended in the form of a cumulus cloud to a height of thirteen thousand feet, and nearly a mile in width. Thus in the brief space of four hours this delightful fairy-land was transformed into a condition suggestive of a scene in Dante's 'Inferno.' The spot where the white terrace formerly stood had been occupied by a crater, forming a kind of horseshoe bay, and from this a column of steam rose and mingled with the general mass. The site of the Pink Terrace, once on the western shore of the lake, now stood a quarter of a mile from the margin of the present crater, in the midst of a mass of boiling mud black and brown in color, with seething pools of steaming water or liquid mud, which was sometimes cast up into fumaroles, ejecting steam and vomiting forth stones and mud, with a noise like the roar of innumerable steam-engines."

Persian Astrologers.—The monajem, or astrologer, is a power in Persia. lie is recognized as a man of science, a member of a learned profession. The chief astrologer is a high court official, from whose ruling there is no appeal, for his decisions are based upon knowledge that is communicated directly from the stars. Thus, if he decrees that the Asylum of the Universe must not start on a hunting expedition on Thursday, but that half an hour after midnight on Saturday will be the fortunate hour, he is able to give irrefragable reasons for his conclusions by showing that Saturn is in the ascendant in the one case, while on Saturday night, at the precise time mentioned, there will be a happy conjunction of Venus. If another astrologer is consulted, he will give the same story. Every hour in the day, and every day in the year, is thus worked out as fortunate, indifferent, or unlucky in the astrologer's Books of Fate. Besides these calendars, they have as their stock in trade a plumb-line, a level, a celestial sphere, and an astrolabe. The astrolabes are in the form of a gigantic watch, and are often beautifully made. Every large town contains at least two astrologers, and they are very far from being poor. A Persian may find an astrologer very useful, especially if he be an officer, and desire to evade some responsibility. Thus, suppose a provincial governor is ordered to the capital, and that he does not want to go, what more powerful reason for delay in starting than to reply that he is waiting for a fortunate hour, and what easier than to induce the astrologer to fail to find one? In the mean time, the officer has time to administer the necessary bribes at court, and the storm blows over. Istikhara, tossing up, or the drawing of the lot, is done with a rosary. A bead is grasped at hap-hazard, "Good," "Bad," "Indifferent," is ejaculated at each bead, till the big terminal one is reached, and that decides the question. Answers are given in conversation, bargains are made or refused, and serious acts are undertaken under the guidance of this formula. Another way is to thrust a knife into the leaves of the Koran or one of the poetical books, and be guided by what is found at the place. The diviners are real quacks, and gain their success by working on the fears of the people. The guilty party in a scandal or criminal inquiry in his nervousness is provoked to do some act that brings about his detection.

The Nature of Diatoms.—The curiously beautiful microscopic objects called diatoms can be found in the mud at the bottom of all pools of water. They were formerly regarded as animals, but are now classed among plants. Professor W. Mattieu Will-iams discovered their vegetable character thirty years ago by an observation which amounted to a demonstration. The white quartz pebbles in his aquarium became coated with a brown growth, caused by the development of these organisms, and at the same time evolved bubbles of gas. In the course of a few days he found an inch of the vertical space of the test-tube which he fixed to catch it filled with this gas, and it was proved by burning wood and other experiments to be nearly all oxygen. Animals expire carbonic acid, plants expire oxygen. Therefore the diatoms were plants.

A Rock-sculptured City.—Montpellier le Vieux is the name given to a curious city-like group of weather-sculptured rocks, which M. E. A. ilartel has described to the French Academy of Sciences. It is near Millau, in Auvergne, France, and about twenty-five hundred feet above the sea. It is composed of a mass of isolated rocks, averaging per-haps about two hundred feet in height, so similar to embattled towers that one group has been called the Citadel; around this mass are five depressions three or four hundred feet deep, of which one resembles an amphitheatre, a second a necropolis, a third a parade-ground, and another a regularly laid out city quarter with public monuments, gates, straight streets and intersections suggesting at once such places as Pompeii, Carnac, and Persepolis. The whole, occupying about five hundred acres, is surrounded by a rocky formation having the aspect of a wall three or four hundred feet high. The ravines under the bases of these walls might be regarded as fosses, and the scattered groups of rocks in the neighborhood as the fortifications of outer lines of defense.

Idiosyncrasies of Plants.—An English reviewer of a book by 5Ir. Charles Roberts, called "The Naturalist's Diary," mentions the idiosyncrasies of certain plants and animals as a feature to which more attention might be given. Thus, a quantity of seed taken from the same plant at the same time, and sown under the same conditions so far as possible, will nevertheless exhibit very great variation in the length of time required for germination. The fact enforces the circumstance that the same amount of aggregate temperature and of water-supply, the same conditions of soil, etc., do not necessarily imply corresponding identity of result. The same thing happens in trees. Every one knows how some individual horse-chestnut trees are year by year more precocious in their development than their fellows. It sometimes happens, too, that one branch of one tree is considerably in advance of the others. Some persons might call these cases exceptions, but they are hardly that. Since they are connected with the main body of habitudes by every possible gradation, they are to be considered as extremes rather than as exceptions, and therefore to be included in the making up of averages.