Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/April 1890/Popular Miscellany


The Disaster at Toronto.—On the evening of February 14th the larger portion of the University of Toronto was laid in ashes. Its governing body have met the disaster with commendable promptitude and spirit. Plans are afoot not only to rebuild the structure in its original beauty of outline, but to extend it for the accommodation of the ever-growing number of the university's students. Last summer the university was the home of the American Association. The cordial hospitality of its venerable principal, Sir Daniel Wilson, and his staff of professors, on that occasion, have done not a little to widen the circle of sympathy felt with Ontario's capital in its grievous loss.

Irish Holiday Customs.—A paper by Mr. James Mooney, on the "Holiday Customs of Ireland," presents the Celtic peasant in a different aspect from that under which he is exhibited in the English Unionist accounts of his misery and turbulence, and one which, we may easily believe with the author, is more really illustrative of his character and home life. The old customs are, however, decaying in Ireland as elsewhere, and many of the observances which were once general are now confined to remote mountain districts or live only in the memory of the older people. Yet others are still common throughout the country. As there is but little communication among the peasantry of different districts, except at the fairs in the summer-time, the customs common in one parish are sometimes entirely unknown in another hardly ten miles distant. While a number of the holiday observances are more or less common to all the Aryan natives, the features more peculiarly Irish are mainly derived from the old Druidic worship. Aside from some essentially foreign customs not noticed in Mr. Mooney's paper, many of the genuine Irish observances have been considerably modified by English influences. This is especially true of the May-day and Christmas celebrations; and many holiday rhymes and children's rhymes, riddles, and other formulas—even in the remote parts, where Celtic is the ordinary language of the people—have been imported bodily from England. Mr. Mooney has also reprinted, from the "Journal of American Folk-Lore," a paper on the "Folk-Lore of the Carolina Mountains," which, while it can hardly be summarized, is full of matters of curious and quaint interest.

Ants and the Plants that harbor them.—In a paper read before the British Association on the Humboldtia laurifolia as an antharboring plant, Prof. Bower observed that the peculiar relations between plants and ants had been the subject of considerable observation from time immemorial. The literature on the subject could be traced as far back as 1750, and Captain Cook, in describing his voyages, distinctly alluded to the matter. In one place he said that he had seen on a certain tree a number of black ants which perforated the twigs, and, after eating out the pith, formed a lodging in the cavity, and yet the tree continued in a flourishing condition. In tropical climates there were many plants pre-eminently associated with ants. The Italian botanist Picari contended that the relationship was advantageous alike to the plants and to the ants. The former afforded shelter to the latter, and in some cases supplied them with food. In the course of a short discussion Dr. Tieman said there were five species of Humboldtia in tropical countries. The ants took advantage of the hollowness of the plants, but he did not think the latter derived any benefit from their presence.

Alcoholism and Consumption.—In three professional papers Prof. Thomas J. Mays exhibits relations between consumption and nervous disorder, and between consumption and alcoholism. The former connection is illustrated by the citation of numerous cases in medical practice, the deductions from which lead to the conclusion that "he who looks at the disease which goes under the name of pulmonary consumption solely from a pulmonary standpoint obtains but a very limited and distorted conception of its magnitude and nature; but that he who takes the view here indicated will realize that the lung affection is only a special manifestation of the disease which invades the whole body; and that all its diversified symptoms, such as fatigue and exhaustion, anorexia, dyspepsia, wasting, dyspnœa, sweating, diarrhœa, hæmoptysis, intercostal tenderness, hoarseness, aphonia, œdema, are not the consequences of the pulmonary disease, as is generally believed, but in all probability find a common bond of union in a general disorder of the peripheral nervous system." In the other aspect of the theory cases are cited to prove that "alcoholism and phthisis are not mere coincidences, but that they have a relationship so intimate that one may be converted into the other"; and that pulmonary phthisis can be produced through the toxic action of alcohol on the nervous system. "Such, then, being the relation between alcoholism and pulmonary phthisis, it is very readily understood why these two diseases should so frequently change places in different members or generations of the same family, and why they are so often associated with various other nervous disorders."

Old Panama Canal Projects.—The feasibility of cutting a canal across the Isthmus was discussed by William Paterson, in 1701, in connection with his Darien scheme, but only incidentally. He thought that the canal could be easily cut for six out of the eight leagues between the oceans, while the other two passages would be difficult. Humboldt, in a report made in 1799, enumerated nine different points at which the two oceans might be connected. Previous to this, in 1788, a passage between the two oceans for small craft was actually accomplished. The author of this achievement, says Mr. J. Stephen Jeans, in a paper on the subject, was the curate of Nevita, who induced his Indian flock to cut a trench between the upper streams of the San Juan River, near Chirambira Bay, and the higher waters of the river Atrato, which flow into the Atlantic through Choco Bay, in the Gulf of Darien, so that they could pass from the Caribbean to the Pacific in their canoes. In carrying this passage into effect, the Arastradera, or summit level, a plain about three miles in width, formed by an interruption of the mountainous ridge, was cut across. The passage was, however, dangerous and difficult at all times, even for canoes, and the communication has now for many years been neglected and disused.

Land Tenures in China.—While the emperor theoretically owns all the land in China, the private owner has as absolute a property in it as he can have under any government. The tenures are military and common, the latter applying to far the largest proportion of the territory., It exists upon the conditions of payment of the land-tax, the supply on demand of statute labor to the authorities, and the payment of a fine on alienation. The land-tax is assessed in a fixed sum on the district magistrate, who recovers from the tenant, but is sometimes remitted in case of a great calamity. The supplying of statute labor has almost fallen into disuse. The fees are payable on the transfer of land by sale or mortgage, succession or inheritance. About half the soil is probably the property of the tenants who till it; but large tracts are also owned by "literati and gentry," who lease it to small farmers for a rental consisting of a proportion of the crops fixed according to the quality of the soil. The rents are paid as soon as the crop is harvested, and, being seldom in arrear, evictions are rare. The laws are all in favor of the tenant, who pays no taxes or rates, and takes everything, including his house. There is every possible variety of arrangement in the ownership of land. There are absolute sales and sales in which the vendor reserves the right to a share in a future rise in value; revocable and irrevocable sales; and dual ownership, in which one man owns the surface and the other the soil, and is liable for the taxes.

Refrigeration by Ammonia.—Ammonia has been very generally employed for refrigerating purposes in the United States and Germany, and to some extent elsewhere, for ten years or more. Other agents used for this purpose are methylic ether, Pictet's liquid, sulphur dioxide, and ether. Ammonia in its anhydrous condition possesses in an eminent degree the properties most desired in a refrigerant, for it boils at the low temperature of 371/2° Fahr., while its latent heat of vaporization is 900°. Two distinct systems are employed in the use of ammonia, differing from one another in the method of securing the rejection of heat during condensation of the vapor, while the mere evaporating or refrigerating part of the process is the same in both. In the absorption process ammonia and water are vaporized together and then fractionally condensed by cooling. The water, condensing first, is caught and run back to the generator, while the nearly anhydrous ammonia is collected separately. With this process 200,000 units of heat per hour may be eliminated by the consumption of about one hundred pounds of coal, with a temperature in the refrigerator of about 20° F. In the compression process the ammonia vapor is drawn from the refrigerator and compressed by a pump and delivered into the condenser and liquefied at the temperature of the cooling water. It is more economical than the absorption process, and is adequate to the elimination of 240,000 units per hour. The process is applied to ice-making and to the cooling of stores and rooms.

The Tahl-tan Indians of British Columbia.—An account of this people by Mr. J. C. Callbreath, included in a report of an exploration by George M. Dawson, gives their maximum height as about five feet seven and a half inches, and maximum girth of chest about thirty-seven inches. Their heads are small, and the feet and hands are generally small, as are also the wrist and ankle, especially in the women. Traders sell more No. 2 women's and No. 6 men's shoes than any other sizes. No men's hats above No. 1 are sold. Half-breeds from a white man and a Tahl-tan woman are more like the father than the mother, and three generations where the father is in every case white seem to obliterate all trace of Indian blood. The children are more cunning and clever when young than those of the white race, but grow dull as they age. Yarn is spun from the wool of the mountain goat and is woven into excellent blankets, which are highly colored and ornamented. The process of boiling water with hot stones in baskets or wooden bowls was formerly common. The dances of the Tahl-tan are tame affairs compared with those of the coast tribes, but their musical capabilities are considerable. Kinship, so far as marriage or inheritance of property goes, is with the mother exclusively, and the father is not considered a relative by blood. Mr. Callbreath tells of an instance where a rich Indian would not go out or even contribute to send others out to search for his aged and blind father who was lost and starving in the mountains. Not counting his father as a relative, he said, "Let bis people go and search for him." Yet this man was a more than average good Indian. A man's female children are as much his property as his gun, and he sells them to whom he pleases. If the husband pays for his wife in full and she dies, even ten years afterward, the father is bound to supply a wife, if he have any more eligible daughters, without additional payment. Their laws are based on the principle that any crime may be condoned by a money payment. Their religious belief was simply what their medicine -men might lay down for them from time to time, and the idea of a Supreme Being was very obscure if not altogether wanting. They have no fear of death except from dread of the pain of dying. There is a belief propagated by their medicine-men that the otter gets inside their women and sometimes causes death by a lingering illness, in other cases allowing the woman to live on till she dies from some other cause.

An African Tribe of Promise.—The Benge are a very intelligent and pleasant tribe which Lieutenant R. Kund's exploring party found occupying an "immense clearing" in the midst of the Congo wilderness. Their village, surrounded by large manioc-fields, consisted of a street about fifty yards wide extending farther than the eye could reach. The huts of the villagers squarely faced the street on either side, and behind them were well-kept plantations of bananas, backed by oil palms, with the giant trees of the forest looming in the rear of all. The race is of a very fine type, with a brownish-red complexion some degrees removed from black, fine, manly features with an intellectual cast, and cleanly and orderly in habits. They are good hunters, and practice woodcarving and other arts with a skill that would do credit to Europeans. They have attained in all respects a higher standard of civilization than is to be found among the other tribes of West Africa. They exhibited none of the stupid superstition in the presence of the travelers which had appeared in other places, and showed no signs of cannibalism or fetichism or coarse idolatry.

Effect of a Cobra's Bite.—The taxidermist of the Victoria Museum was bitten in the hand by a cobra, from which the poisonbag had been extracted, while feeding it. Supposing the bite to be harmless, he took no notice of it till pain and nausea began. Then all the usual antidotes were tried without effect. The man lost the power of speech, became paralyzed in his muscular system, and ceased to breathe. Artificial respiration was applied for eight hours, after which he began to breathe again and gradually regained consciousness. After two days he was able to tell his friends that he had been fully aware of all that was going on during the efforts to restore him, but had not been able to move a muscle or to make his feelings known. He could see and hear and feel, but not move or twitch. He was afterward attacked by high fever and inflammation of the lungs, from which he died on the Sunday following the Wednesday on which he was bitten.

Dust essential to Fogs.—Nearly ten years ago John Aitken, of Edinburgh, proved experimentally that the presence of dust was essential to the formation of fog and cloud. He connected two receivers, one containing common air, the other air freed from dust by passing through cotton-wool, with a boiler. When steam was admitted into the first receiver, a fog formed within it; but when allowed to enter the one containing filtered air, not the slightest cloudiness was produced. Particles of water-vapor do not combine with each other to form a cloud particle, but must have a free surface on which to condense. The particles of dust serve as nuclei on which the vapor condenses, and hence the more abundant the dust the more dense the cloud. When the vapor in the second receiver was brought by circulation against the sides of the receiver, it gradually condensed on these surfaces. The density of the fog formed in common air shows what a large amount of dust is present every day in the air around us. But the particles of fog do not represent all the dust-particles in the air. If enough steam is blown into a receiver full of common air to produce a dense fog, and after the fog has settled more steam is blown in, another fog will form on the dust which still floats in the air. If this is repeated a number of times, a less dense and coarser-grained fog forms each time, till at last no fog is seen, but the condensed vapor falls as rain. These dust-particles are not the motes that we see in the path of a sunbeam; for, when common air is passed through a flame, these motes disappear, but the air still remains a good medium for fogs. It is a finer kind of dust which furnishes the fog and cloud nuclei. The products of combustion are fog producers, and especially the vapor from the burning of sulphur.

Gem Minerals of Canada.—Although, according to Mr. George F. Kunz's paper on "Precious Stones, Gems, and Decorative Stones in Canada and British North America," Canada can hardly be called a gem-producing country, it furnishes a number of stones that are of more than passing interest to the mineralogist, and of some value in jewelry and the arts. A number of gem minerals, not of gem quality, are found in examples of such size and perfection that they have been given prominent places in cabinets, and are even more prized as specimens than cut stones from other localities. Their mineralogical value gives them no small commercial importance. Of such are magnificent zircon crystals, occurring as individuals up to fifteen pounds in weight, and many finer ones weighing a pound, as well as beautiful twin crystals of the same mineral; black titanite in simple and trimmed crystals up to seventy pounds each; "vast quantities of amethyst" from Lake Superior; ouvorsovite or green chrome garnet from Orford, and white garnet crystals from near Wakefield; and apatite crystals, one weighing over five hundred pounds, of great beauty, of which the rich green variety, especially, would do to work into ornaments similar to those made from fluorite. Only a small part of the territory of the Dominion has been examined with reference to these stones; and with the discovery of new localities important additions to the list may be anticipated.

The Sliding Railway.—The Chemin de Fer Glissant, or sliding railway, at the Paris Exhibition, according to a description by Sir Douglas Galton in the British Association, is based on the two principles of causing the carriage to slide on a thin film of water introduced between the sledge-plates on which it rests; and the propulsion of the sliding train by horizontal columns of water acting through hydrants placed at intervals on the line. The system was originally designed by Girard in 1861, who made a line at his own private house, where he had an inclination of one foot in twenty. The results he obtained seemed to justify the application of the system in special cases on a paying basis. He acquired a concession in 1869 for a railway from Calais to Marseilles, to which a subvention was afterward attached. But the War of 1870 resulted in the destruction of the railway by the German army, and in the death of M. Girard in 1871. In 1885 M. Barré purchased the drawings left by M. Girard, and introduced an improvement which he considered would make the system more workable. A line on this improved system was established in the Paris Exhibition, about two hundred yards long, and trains were run upon it.

Properties of the Kola-Nut.—Kola-nuts, or the seeds of Sterculia acuminata, are allied in composition to cocoa, coffee, and tea, but contain a relatively large amount of caffeine. They are credited with strong tonic and nervous stimulant properties; with counteracting and removing the sense of exhaustion after fasting and fatigue; with having antagonistic reaction to alcohol; and with a purifying influence on water. Their value as a therapeutic and dietetic agent has been tested by Surgeon R. H. Firth, who concludes that kola is not a food; that it increases total urinary water, has a stimulant action on the nervous system, temporarily strengthens the heart-beat, and increases the arterial tension. In times of exertion and fasting it wards off the sense of mental and physical depression and exhaustion. The author has not gained positive results respecting its therapeutic qualities. Its action in purifying water is mechanical, and not more effective than that of other mucilaginous seeds.

Raining Spiders' Webs.—Falls or showers of gossamer spiders' webs have been recorded in different parts of the world. White describes several in his "Natural History of Selborne." Darwin mentions a shower which he observed from the deck of the Beagle off the mouth of the Rio Plata, when the vessel was sixty miles from land. A general fall of spiders' webs is said to have been noticed a few years ago in some of the towns of Wisconsin, which seemed to come from over the lake. The webs were strong in texture, very white, varied from sixty feet in length to mere specks, and were seen as far up in the air as the power of the eye could reach. The shower may have been due to an unusual excursion of the familiar geometric spider, a species which has the same power as the gossamer of shooting webs that float upon the air, and sometimes serve aa an air-raft for the producer.