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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/June 1897/Fragments of Science

Fragments of Science.

Large Trees from the Coal Period.—The approach from the south to La Grange, Ala., is marked by the fine view into the valley of the Tennessee River, three or four hundred feet below, which it presents, and by the masses of sandstone lying around the village, where it has been precipitated from the cliffs above by the wearing away of the limestone under them. But the most interesting and remarkable feature of the locality, says Mr. Henry McCalley, in his geological report of the valley region, and the one for which La Grange will always be distinguished, is the profusion of the remains of fossil plants. Nowhere can one gain better ideas of the magnificence of the flora of the coal period than at this place. Trunks of Lepidodendron, two or three feet in diameter, lie buried and protruding from the débris of the sandstone. These trunks have in general preserved their form and are not at all compressed, whereby they show that they stood erect in the beds that inclosed them. Although stripped of their bark, the scars are plainly impressed on their surface. Two very fine specimens of these trunks are in the cabinet of the Geological Survey at the State University. One of them represents the lower part of the trunk, and has two large roots attached. The other has been used as a horse block, is about three feet in diameter and four feet high, and is remarkable for the impressions of calamites and other plants of which the sandstone composing it is full. The supposition is drawn from them that, in the process of petrifaction, the interior of the trunk was removed by decay or otherwise, leaving a hollow cylinder of the outer layers of the trunk, and that this hollow cylinder was filled up with sand and fragments of calamites and other coal plants, which subsequently hardened.


The Moki Indians and their Birds.—The Moki Indians are described, in Dr. E. A. Mearns's paper on the names of their birds, as having a superstititious regard for most living things, particularly as holding serpents in reverence and a number of birds as sacred, or as looking to them as representing their clans or secret religious orders." Observers of Moki ceremonies have seen large wooden tablets in their kivas or ceremonial chambers painted with a green ground, ornamented with the rain prayer and some one of the countless Moki gods, and have remarked that the little bird in the clouds suggests the thunder bird of the plains Indians." Bourke remarked upon the constant appearance of feathers, chiefly those of the eagle and turkey. The Indians will not part, for any amount of money, with the wands of eagle feathers used for fanning living serpents at their snake dance, for fear of offending their bird deity. Sacrificial plumes of eagle down, attached to little sticks, are buried in the corners of the field at the opening of spring. The feathers of the parrot, brought up from Mexico, are treasured in the Pueblos, and will always be found, according to Bourke, "carefully preserved in peculiar wooden boxes, generally cylindrical in shape, made expressly for the purpose. With them is invariably associated the soft white down of the eagle. The Mokis have an especial veneration for the two species of eagle, which are kept by them in cages, and are fed largely on field mice and rabbits. Captain Bourke alludes to eagle feathers as common articles of commerce among these people, to which they attach a determinate value, and ascribes the high price placed upon them by all the sedentary Indians of Arizona and New Mexico to graver considerations than mercantile.


"Wild Indian Corn."—The question whether wild Indian corn is growing in America is raised in Garden and Forest by Robert P. Harris, who assumes that such a corn has been found in several regions of this continent, naturally reproducing itself, and that it has a character of growth that fits it for long preservation in a dry climate, although, if planted and cultivated for a few years, all the characteristics of wildness gradually disappear. "The cobs of wild maize are thin and hard, covered with lines of mushroom shaped elevations, each having a wirelike pedicel growing from the top, attached to a glume inclosing a small pointed grain, or a flat grain smaller than any pop corn. These kernel husks overlap each other toward the point of the ear, like the shingles on the roof of a house. The imbrications are largest and longest at the butt of the ear, and gradually become less pronounced as they advance in distinct rows to the point. The individual glumes are from an inch to two inches long, and are much longer than this where the grains are not fertilized, particularly if the entire ear is of this character, as is proved by a specimen in my collection. Over these imbrications is the outside husk as we have it in all cultivated corns." Mr. Harris further says that Indian corn in its wild state has been found in Arizona, southern Texas, the valley of Mexico, and Central America. He has known Rocky Mountain corn a long period of time; it has very small ears. One of the professors of the University of Mexico has been experimenting with the wild corn of the valley, and has the engraving of a plant that grew to be about five feet high. Wild corn has also been grown by the Landreths, near Philadelphia, to whom it was sent from Arizona. Some found by Dr. Williams, of Houston, Texas, is a white flint of large size; but fifteen stalks produced only four ears, which grew on two of the stalks. The plant is a very vigorous grower, but it is not productive, and eight stalks grown in Texas did not bear a single ear. It may be doubted whether the evidence is as yet sufficient or is clear enough to establish that these specimens are really wild corn and not corn that has escaped from cultivation—the more so, because Indian corn with glumes to each kernel is not rare.


Dr. Yersin and Plague Virus.—Nature, of February 1 8th, brings an interesting account of Dr. Yersin's discovery of the plague virus and its antitoxiue, during the epidemic at Hong Kong in the spring of 1894. His attention being attracted to the extraordinary number of dead rats lying about in the squalid Chinese quarters of the city, he examined them, and discovered immense numbers of a short bacillus, that could be easily stained and cultivated in the usual manner. He found the same bacilli in different organs of plague patients. Noticing quantities of dead flies in the room where he carried on his post-mortem examinations, he investigated this symptom, and established by experiment that these insects also were infected, and assisted in the spread of the disease. He forwarded cultures of his bacillus to the Pasteur Institute at Paris. Experiments made on rabbits and guinea pigs proved that the dead bacilli, if injected in sufficient number, are deadly; smaller quantities, however, act as a vaccine, and protect the subject against stronger inoculation. Experiments with larger animals, such as horses, were equally successful. "That the most remarkable therapeutic value attaches to anti-plague serum, as now elaborated at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, is shown by the success which has recently followed its application in undoubted cases of plague at Amoy, by Yersin, now director of a Pasteur Institute at Wha-Trang in Annam.


Marriage of the Dead.—Among the many curious practices that Marco Polo came across in his travels in the far East, the Tartar custom of marrying the dead deserves notice. He says: "If any man have a daughter who dies before marriage, and another man have had a son also die before marriage, the parents of the two arrange a grand wedding between the dead lad and lass, and marry them they do, making a regular contract! And when the contract papers are made out they put them in the fire, in order that the parties in the other world may know the fact, and so look on each other as man and wife. And the parents thenceforward consider themselves sib to each other just as if their children had lived and married. Whatever may be agreed on between the parties as dowry, those who have to pay it cause to be painted on pieces of paper, and then put these in the fire, saying that in that way the dead person will get all the real articles in the other world." This custom is also noted by other writers, even as late as the beginning of the eighteenth century. It is said to have been adopted by Jenghis Khan, for political reasons, and is named in his Yasa, published in 1205 a. d.


The Three "R's" of Prehistoric Man.—M. Ed. Piette has published an interesting discovery in L'Anthropologie, (vol. vii, 1896, p. 385). He found in a cave at Mas-d'Azil, in the department of Ariège, a quantity of pebbles, rounded, oblong, and flattened, such as are taken from river beds. They were variously painted with peroxide of iron; some had their whole surface colored, and others again showed a border around the margin, or were dotted and striped in different designs. Crosses, serpentine patterns, and even trees could be traced out. M. Piette thinks that according to these devices the pebbles stand for numerals, symbols, pictographic signs, and alphabetic characters. He gives loose rein to his fancy in interpreting them, especially the last named. He reaches the startling conclusion that some are probably syllabic signs, used for inscriptions or in building up words. Twenty-five colored plates accompany the memoir, and give food for speculation on these cabalistic memorials of a bygone era.


Animals on the March.—Among the animals that take long journeys in great numbers are the springbok, the American bison, the musk ox, and, in smaller bodies, wild horses and the antelopes of the steppes. Journeying mostly over the plains, they nearly always move in a wide front, a way of marching that gives an equal chance to all in browsing. Some species of birds also migrate on foot. The guinea fowls always go in single file, a favorite mode of travel in Central Africa, where paths have to be cut through the dense scrub or impassable forests. The European wild geese are the champion walkers among birds. Belying the stigma attached to their name, they show much forethought in their pedestrian expeditions, which are undertaken either to accompany their young, or during the molting season. Unhasting, yet unresting, they march ahead in column, often ten geese abreast, careful not to jostle their neighbors, with head erect in the air. From time to time the leaders give the signal to halt and feed, and then to "fall in" again and continue on the road. Abroad, before the days of railways, dealers in poultry, making use of this marching power, often saved expense by letting the geese transport themselves. Droves numbering nine thousand have walked over the road from Suffolk to London. At Antwerp not long ago large flocks were seen marching up the plank to a steamer bound for Harwich, and then gravely descending to the lower deck to range themselves in an inclosure, quite unwittingly going to their own death. Animals on the march rarely suffer from hunger. The quadrupeds, being all vegetarians, go toward the regions of their food supply. Birds "feed up" for a time before their migration, and during their sea trips live on the fat stored away on their bodies. Fish on the march are the most leisurely of creatures. Floating along with hardly any efforts of propulsion, and constantly surrounded by their food supply, they appear the favored among travelers.


Maori Tattooing.—Major-General Robley, who has studied the tattooing, or "moko," of the Maoris, represents that the custom is no longer practiced among the men. King Tawhaio, two years ago, carried to his grave "one of the last really fine specimens of moko." Apparently every chief who was decorated had a special design, and a variety of beautiful patterns in arabesque arose. They certainly show, the Athenæum says, that a variety of designs can be derived from the adaptation of scroll work to the outlines of the human face, and exhibit much technical skill in dealing with an intractable material. The work was done with a chisel made of a sea bird's wing bone or a shark's tooth, a fragment of stone or hard wood, ground down to a fine edge, which was driven into the skin by a smart tap, causing a deep cut and much effusion of blood, which was wiped away with the flattened end of the mallet or with a wad of flax. After contact with Europeans, iron chisels were sometimes used. The association of a special design with the individual tattooed had the advantage of serving as a means of identification, and this led to the curious result that Maori chiefs attached as their signature to deeds and other documents a facsimile of the moko tattooed on their faces. It is said that even an enemy would respect a head conspicuous for a beautiful moko.


The Caucasus as a Pleasure Resort.—The Caucasus Mountains are held up by Sir Douglas Freshfield, who knows them well, as a desirable pleasure resort and especially well adapted to a horseback excursion. Provisions are plenty, and the configuration of the region lends itself to a riding tour. The Caucasus is suited for general travelers, for lovers of the picturesque, whether or not they are painters, as well as for peak-hunters. If above its snow level its granite crests, its icy hollows, its hanging glaciers, and fluted snow slopes impress the intruder with a sublimity beyond that of the Alps, its high valleys have attractions for men of the most various pursuits and hobbies. The physical geographer will find materials for a contrast between the features of the Caucasus and those of better-known ranges. For example, why do so many Caucasian glaciers fail to fill their valleys and leave a pleasant dell between the moraines and the mountain sides?. . . I am not competent and do not attempt to act as a guide to the Caucasus as a whole. My 'Central Caucasus' bears to the whole region something of the same proportion that the Central Alps, between the Little St. Bernard and the Bernma Pass, do to the Alpine chain. It is the most important section, but it is only a section. On one side, to the east, lie the wild highlands of Daghestan, the scene of Schamyl's resistance, with their high plateaus cleft by narrow ravines, their hill fortresses, and at least three high glacier groups. On the west stretch the great forests and granite crests which hem the tributaries of the Ruban, a region probably of extraordinary beauty. The glaciers of one of its groups have just been mapped for the first time by the Russian surveyors. They are otherwise wholly unexplored. The only travelers to penetrate these fortresses have been Dr. Radde, who has, in Petermann's Mittheilungen, published an account of his journeys, a stray botanist or two, and those indefatigable pursuers of wild animals, Mr. and Mrs. Littledale, who have hunted the aurochs in the wilds of the Zelentshuk."


Historical Wampum Belts.—One of the last papers of the late Horatio Hale was recently communicated to the Anthropological Institute, London, by Prof. E. B. Tylor, and related to four historical Huron wampum belts. To this Prof. Tylor added some remarks of his own, which were illustrated by the exhibition of specimens and lantern slides. It was explained how the Iroquois belt might be distinguished from others by the occurrence of diagonal bands of beads, contrasting in color with those forming the ground. These diagonals are derived from the diagonal rafters of the peculiar "long houses" of the Iroquois. Other well-known conventional symbols represent hearts, houses, lands, the "peace path," etc. One of the belts exhibited was itself a historical record of some interest, as it depicted a proposal of conversion to Christianity made by the early Jesuit missionaries to the Indians, the message being effected by working into a wampum belt a symbolic group consisting of the lamb, the dove, and several crosses. The investigations made by Mr. Hale seem to show that the "Penn Belt," which is now in New England, is not a record of the famous scene depicted by Benjamin West, but of a more obscure treaty concluded with Iroquois chiefs. The intrinsic evidence afforded by the belt convinced Mr. Hale that it was made by Iroquois. In this way anthropology has been able to correct history. The speaker also illustrated the use of wampum belts as records in modern times, exemplified by the annual meeting of chiefs, at which all the belts are carefully gone over, in order that events of tribal importance may be kept green.


Elephants in a Lumber Yard.—No work done by elephants perhaps requires at once greater intelligence and strength on their part than that of those which are used in unloading and piling up timber in the lumber yards of Burmah. The most important of these lumber yards, at Rangoon, receives the timber that comes down from the immense forests of the Irrawaddy, with the great logs lashed together into huge rafts. The workmen cut the cords, and the task of the elephants begins. Plunging without hesitation into the muddy waters of the river, they go at once toward the logs. Each animal selects a stick, pushes it with his trunk to the shore, picks it up, and lands it, all that his driver has to do being to indicate what log he wishes taken. Twelve of these animals, according to M. Charles Marsillon, eleven males and one female, work constantly in the yard. The female is the most intelligent of all of them. At the sawmill she places the piece to be cut before the saw. She uses her trunk as a hand; takes the boards away as they are made, and piles them symmetrically in the drying heap. As the sawdust accumulates and threatens to cover everything up, she blows it away with her powerful nostrils, keeping the place cleared so that the work can go on unobstructed. When the dinner bell rings, nothing—neither threats nor caresses—can keep her in the yard, industriously as she has worked till then. She seems to see to it too that her companions also stop. The elephants return to work immediately the signal is given. Sometimes one of them comes upon a stick that is too heavy for him to handle alone; and then one of his companions, perceiving his trouble, will come to his assistance. It seems to be one of the easiest things in the world for these animals to arrange and straighten the pile of logs whenever it begins to take a crooked or uneven shape. If they are not able to do this with their trunks, they use their tusks until the pile is got into order. They work willingly and with interest, call for help when they need it, and respond to one another's appeals.

Substitutes for Glass in Germany.—An interesting account of glass substitutes is given in a recent copy of the Journal of the Society of Arts. Tectorium, which is used in Germany as a substitute for glass, is a sheet of tough, insoluble gum—said to be bichromated gelatin—about one sixteenth of an inch thick, overlying on both sides a web of galvanized iron or steel wire, the meshes of which are generally about one eighth of an inch square. It feels and smells similar to the oiled silk that is used in surgery. It is lighter than glass, tough, pliant, and practically indestructible by exposure to rain, wind, hail, or any shock or blow which does not pierce or break the wire web. It may be bent into any desired form, and when punctured can be easily repaired. Its translucency is about the same as that of opal glass, with a greenish amber color, which fades gradually to white on exposure to the sun; so that while arresting the direct rays of sunshine, it transmits a soft, modulated light, which is said to be well adapted to hothouses and conservatories. It is a poor conductor of heat and cold. Its surface is well adapted for printing in oil colors, and is thus valuable for decorative purposes. The objections against it are that it is inflammable, and is apt to sot ten in warm weather. For hot-beds and forcing houses the Germans have another substitute glass called Fensterpappe, which is a tough, strong manilla paper which is soaked in boiled linseed oil until it becomes translucent and impervious to water. This paper costs wholesale in Germany about 19s. 6d. per roll one hundred metres in length by one metre in width. It admits sufficient light for growing plants, does not require to be shaded in hot sunshine, is light, durable, and practically secure against breakage, and is said to be a hundred times cheaper than glass. There is a new product recently patented and placed on the German market, called Hornglas. It is very similar to tectorium in appearance and properties, the two advantages claimed for it being greater transparency and less liability of softening under a hot sun.


Animal Traits.—Among the birds in the "Zoo" at the Hague not commonly found in menageries is the "rhinoceros bird," or "buffel pikker," from the Transvaal, which is described by the natural-history writer in the London Spectator as a bird of remarkable habits and unusual plumage. Small flocks of these birds accompany most, of the large antelopes, the buffaloes, and the rhinoceroses in South Africa, and run all over the creatures' bodies, picking off flies and insects. When an enemy approaches, the "buffel pikkers" sit in line with heads raised on the back of the animal they are attending, like sparrows on a roof ridge, and signal the alarm. The plumage is close, uniform, and compact, giving the bird an appearance of being covered with polished satin rather than with feathers. The monkeys have an outdoor house, floored with loose sand, exactly suitable for a playground agreeing with their natural habits, which communicates with their cages by holes through the wall. The holes fairly represent the rock crevices in the animals' native hills, and the monkeys slip through them to the sand, which they can turn over in search of insects, as they do at home. When thirsty, they go to the stone water troughs set in the runs and drink, standing on all fours, sucking up the water as a horse does. The elephant in this Zoo has had to sacrifice his dignity and come down to playing tricks. It earns small coins by blowing a mouth organ with its trunk and grinding a coffee mill. It plays dominoes "with laborious care," lifting each piece from the table and depositing it next that placed by the keeper, with a very audible noise.


Canon Core on Evolution and the Fall.—In a lecture recently delivered at Sheffield, England, Canon Gore examines the contradictions between the Christian doctrine of the sudden fall and the scientific doctrine of the gradual rise of man. "According to the theory of evolution," he said, "man began his career at the bottom, emerging from purely animal life, and slowly struggled upward to his present level of attainment. According to the Christian doctrine, on the contrary, he was created perfect, and then subsequently fell into sin and accompanying misery." Intellectually, however, the Bible does not represent primitive man as perfect. His faculties at the beginning were in a childish state, and his mastery over the arts and sciences was a gradual acquirement. But it maintains that man from the first was endowed with a perfected moral feeling for right and wrong, and that his one act of disobedience not only affected his own life but also tainted with lawlessness his after-comers. Canon Gore maintains that according to the third chapter of Genesis man was at first in direct relation to a divine will, and could have followed the path of development pointed out to him. He thereby would have spiritualized not only his own nature, but by the simple law of heredity would have fathered a race moving in an altogether higher moral sphere.


Marsupials and their Skins.—The marsupials (the pouch-bearing animals) of Australia, the opossums, wombats, kangaroos, and wallabies (smaller kangaroos), are among the fur-bearing animals killed in the largest numbers. They have been looked upon as pests, and a premium put upon their heads by the Government, so that now they are exterminated in many parts of the country. Their skins are not at all estimated at their proper value, being mostly made up into cheap rugs, or used for sole leather and japanned boots, or the hair is scraped off and manufactured into felt. Yet they would be a valuable addition to the European fur trade, were the animals not constantly killed and the skins shipped to England in the summer, when the fur is almost useless. The coat, especially of the kangaroo, is close and soft like plush, with beautiful tints of French gray, warm red, orange, and rose color. The famous "boxing kangaroo" attracted a good deal of attention some three years ago. It earned an immense sum of money, sometimes given as £20,000. It had not received any special training; its keeper simply took advantage of the fact that a tame kangaroo who knows its master will always "box" when invited to do so, putting up his short forearms to ward off any imaginary blows. This kangaroo set the fashion for the sport, for the animals at once were sought after for sparring exhibitions, and for a time all the kangaroos in Europe outside of the menageries nightly drew crowds to their pugilistic feats. Kangaroos easily adapt themselves to the European climate; they thrive well in the zoölogical gardens, and have even been successfully kept on private estates in England. Their graceful poses and their soft, beautifully tinted coats make them objects of general attraction.


Roadside Orchards.—The experiment of planting fruit trees along the sides of public highways has been tried with satisfactory results in several German states and in Austria, and the products of the plantations have been the means of adding considerably to the revenues of the Governments thereof. In Saxony the profit derived by the state from that source during fourteen years is estimated at about four hundred thousand dollars. Planting of forest trees by the sides of the roads has been abandoned in Würtemberg, and the plantation and care of fruit trees are regulated by law. The trees are placed in the care f the abutting proprietor under the supervision of the highway inspector. In Bavaria and the Palatinate each road man is duplicated by a horticulturist, for whose qualification special instruction is provided, and who has to pass a competitive examination. In some regions the lines of the railroads are also planted, and in others the minor roads and even private roads. The system has made the most rapid progress and reached the highest development in the grand duchy of Luxemburg, where special classes are held every year, under a professor in the agricultural school, for teaching the inspectors and road hands the theoretical and practical elements of the orchardist's art.


The Dalai Lama.—Mr. St. George R. Littledale, who traveled in Tibet in 1894, learned from an interpreter that the Dalai Lama then reigning was about twenty years old, and was to come of age in the succeeding November. The Rajah of Lhasa, who was acting as regent, would then lose his power and retire into private life. The last two Dalai Lamas had died between the ages of eighteen and twenty, which seemed to be a peculiarly fatal period in the lives of these potentates. The present regent had held office for forty years, and might perhaps have given interesting details of the last illnesses of two of his sovereigns. The Dalai Lama, however often the dignitary may be reincarnated, never really dies; the incarnation descends to some infant, whom it is the business of the lama priesthood to discover. When found, he is brought to Lhasa, surrounded by crowds of lamas, who educate him for the position he is so seldom allowed to fill. The Dalai Lama of Mr. Littledale's time was discovered as a baby at Thokopo, five days from Lhasa. The Teshu Lama at Shigatze was a boy of twelve or thirteen, who during his minority was under the tutelage of Lhasa. When a Tibetan lama dies, they carry the body to a mountain, cut it to pieces, and the vultures do the rest. The Dalai Lama is embalmed, and gold and jewels are inserted into his face. The three great incarnations—the Dalai Lama, the Teshu Lama, and the Taranath Lama—are all equally holy, and their sedan chairs, when in Lhasa, are each carried by eight bearers, while the two Chinese mandarins are allowed only four bearers apiece.


Quick Growth of a Myth.—A pertinent illustration of the way myths and legends may grow and expand is illustrated by the story of Alexander (the Great), of which Mr. E. A. Wallis Budge has published the Syriac and Ethiopic versions. No instance of the development of fables, says the Athenæum's review of one of these publications, can be more instructive; for we start from a real man, living in the clear light of history, whose acts were chronicled at the time by respectable historians. Nevertheless, so transcendent was his genius, so marvelous were his deeds, that almost immediately after his death—probably, indeed, during his life—popular imagination lays hold of him, adds adventures, miracles, words of wisdom, wonders of all sorts, and so trans forms him into a colossal mythical figure, which looms through the mists of fable, as fantastic as Jack the Giant Killer. The diffusion of the Alexander stories is probably the widest ever attained by any heroic legend. "There are versions of them stretching through all the middle ages in time, and reaching in space from the Malay Peninsula to Ireland; and, as every nation has desired a popular or home edition, we can even yet find either complete or partial texts in at least wenty-three languages." Dr. Budge describes the process of amplification of the myth as starting with the distortion and enlargement of the first tolerably accurate description, and going on till, "when the hero has become a mere memory, his name will be made in each country that adopts the story a peg on which to hang legends and myths."