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

Fragments of Science.

A Bunsen Burner for Acetylene.—An interesting item regarding the use of acetylene as a heating agent occurs in the Chemical News. A. E. Munby writes: "The cheap production of calcium carbide has placed a powerful illuminant within the reach of those who possess no gas supply, but so far little has been heard of the use of acetylene as a heating agent. Our laboratory is, so far as we know, the first to make use of the gas for this purpose. We employ a Bunsen burner of special dimensions, the tube being five millimetres in internal diameter. A slightly wider tube may be used, provided the mouth be curved inward, so that the actual exit does not exceed the diameter mentioned; if larger, the flame tends to strike down. The gas jet is very small, being only capable of delivering about one cubic foot of acetylene per hour under six inches water pressure, such a rate of consumption giving an ordinary working flame. The air holes and collar are arranged as in an ordinary Bunsen, the exact size of the former not being of much importance, provided they be large enough to admit the air required. A generator capable of giving gas under seven inches water pressure with the full number of burners in use is required. The heating effect of the flame is, of course, very great, enabling one to dispense with the blowpipe for some operations, such as small fusions. . . . It would seem that in practice, for equal volumes burned, the acetylene has nearly twice the heating power of coal gas."


Officers of the American Association.—At the recent Detroit meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Prof. F. W. Putnam resigned the office of Permanent Secretary, which he had held for about twenty-five years, and L. O. Howard, of the Department of Agriculture, Washington, was chosen to succeed him. The officers elect for the next meeting, which is to be held in Boston, are: President, Prof. F. W. Putnam; Vice-Presidents, Mathematics and Astronomy, E. E. Barnard; Physics, Frank P. Whitman; Chemistry, Edgar F. Smith; Mechanical Science and Engineering, M. E. Cooley Geology and Geography, H. L. Fairchild; Zoölogy, A. S. Packard; Botany, W. F. Farlow; Anthropology, J. McKen Cattell; Economic Science and Statistics, Archibald Blue (Toronto, Canada). The Sectional Secretaries are: Mathematics and Physics, Alexander Zirvet; Physics, E. B. Rosa; Chemistry, Charles Baskerville; Mechanical Science and Engineering, William S. Aldrich; Geology and Geography, Warren Upham; Zoölogy, C. W. Stille; Botany, Erwin F. Smith; Anthropology, M. H. Saville; Economic Science and Statistics, Marcus Benjamin. D. S. Kellicott, Columbus, Ohio, was elected General Secretary, to succeed Prof. Hall; and Frederick Bedell, of Cornell University, was made Secretary of the Council.


The Age of the Earth.—In a recent lecture at the Victoria Institute on the Age of the Globe as an abode fitted for life, Lord Kelvin maintained that if heat had been uniformly conducted out of the earth at its present regular rate, the globe twenty thousand million years ago would have been a molten if not a gaseous mass. A further argument against the huge lengths of time required by the older geologists was sought in the constantly diminishing velocity in the earth's rotation resulting from tidal action. The earth was revolving faster a thousand million years ago than now, and consequently centrifugal action was greater. If the globe had become consolidated while it was traveling at a faster rate, it would have possessed greater oblateness and the length of the equatorial radius would have been six and a half kilometres more than it is. Judging from the properties of rocks and by underground temperatures, the date of the solidification of the earth was probably twenty or thirty million years ago. As to the origin of the atmosphere, at the time of solidification there could have been no free oxygen, so far as could be determined, and no chemical reaction by which it could be liberated. Vegetable life and sunlight must have come into play to prepare our atmosphere in the course of a few hundred or thousand years. A serious geological question was the mode of production of the ocean depths and of the eminences of the continents. Many phenomena were doubtless due to strain on cooling, but that did not afford a sufficient explanation in this case. The author thought the cause was change of density by crystallization. Perhaps the strongest argument against unlimited geological time was afforded by the heat of the sun, which may have illuminated the earth for somewhere about twenty million years. The latest geological estimate of the time required for the formation of all strata since the beginning of the Cambrian rocks was seventeen million years, and the author could hardly be spoken harshly of when he said that this earth could not have been a habitable globe for more than ten million years.


The Musée Social.—The Musée Social is a vigorous institution organized in Paris, in 1894, to furnish the public, besides information and discussions, with the documents, models, plans, and statutes of organizations and social institutions intended to ameliorate the material and moral situation of workingmen. It has established a permanent exhibition of social economy, a library of about nine thousand volumes, French and foreign, documents on important questions, and periodicals; and has made provision for communicating to those interested whatever information may be desired concerning social enterprises. For the collection of information it sends deputations to make personal observations of social facts, events, and institutions, and has correspondents abroad, of whom Mr. W. F. Willoughby, of the Department of Labor, represents the United States, to furnish news of the course of the social movements in their respective countries. The results of its inquiries are given to the public through stated conferences held at its rooms in Paris; through "circulars"—very respectable documents in size—published and distributed at short intervals, and through a series of publications known as the Bibliothèque, or Library of the Musée Social. The Musée has been recognized by the state as of public utility, and its members and supporters are men of weight.


Some Conditions of Plant Distribution.—A paper published by Mr. Conway MacMillan in Minnesota Botanical Studies on the Distribution of Plants along Shore at Lake of the Woods is an admirable demonstration of the dependence over such an area as the shores of the lake of plant formations upon conditions of topography and the environment, is very minute and exhaustive, and is believed by the author to be the first of its kind published in America. From the multitude of illustrations it affords of the dependence of vegetal and other characteristics on small differences of conditions, we can take, almost at random, only a few. The shores of the lake are classified into front, mid, and back strands, etc. "The mid-strand area appears to afford an excellent example of the sensitiveness of plant formations to varying environmental conditions. The character and aspect, the abundance or paucity of certain forms, the arrangement of the different forms with reference to one another, all seem definitely related to the variations in exposure, slope, temperature, moisture, wind currents and surf impact, or upon combinations or modifications of these. So the constant variety of the beach as one walks along it is connected with the multitude of variations in the soil below, the air above, and the water off shore. The mid-strand, too, is modified by the back-strand which abuts upon it. . . . And by the physical texture and contour of the back-strand the mid-strand may be affected very sharply—as when the rain is carried through the gullies in the back-strand down upon or across the area nearer the water's edge. Curious interrupted patches of Carices and Epilobiums that occur in the mid-strand are often to, be referred to declivities or gullies in the back-strand, directing the moisture to some spots rather than to others. Thus both the physical and biological conditions of the zone farther inland affect the beach flora quite as distinctly as do the conditions shoreward." The line between mid-strand and back-strand may be called a tension line, as between two general groups of plants striving to move in opposite directions, where a reciprocal stress is developed; and the plants of the mid-strand strive to enter the back strand, while the others try in turn to work out upon the mid-strand. Thus an irregular boundary line is developed, and the exact line of demarcation is nowhere altogether clear and distinct. A peculiar biological influence modifying back-strand at certain isolated points is the nesting of gulls and terns. "By their deposition of guano, and probably by their carrying in of seeds, these birds have at various points on island back-strand established conditions favorable to the development of vegetation islands that may mark the approximate spot of the rookery long after the birds have deserted it."


The Blue Color of Lakes.—It is generally agreed, as Carl Vogt demonstrated in an article published in the Monthly a few years ago, that pure water, as in many of the deepest lakes, is blue; and it is usually supposed that the greenish tint common to other waters is given to them by yellowish matter held in suspension, while an excess of such matter turns them yellow. The explanation, while he regards it as correct as to the color of water, is not accepted by M. W. Spring as sufficient to account for lakes looking blue; for, if their water is wholly pure and quiet, it will absorb the mass of the light, reflecting little or none, and look black. What gives this water its reflecting power? Some suppose the existence of colorless solid matter in the water like the dust that makes visible the diffused light of the atmosphere. That cause is admitted to be a possible one; but M. Spring has satisfied himself by experiments that water absolutely pure will also reflect the light if the mass is composed of layers of different temperatures that give rise to convection currents. This conclusion is supported by observation. Prof. F. A. Forel has found that fresh-water lakes are more transparent in winter than in summer, as they should be by M. Spring's theory; because in summer the differences in temperature between the surface and the layers beneath are greater. Thus the remains of the lake dwellers can be seen on the bottoms of the Swiss lakes in winter at places where they are not at all visible in summer. Prof. Forel thinks that this is because there is more dust in them to obscure the view in summer than in winter; but there is no reason why this should be, while the disturbance by convection currents is necessarily much greater in the warm season. M. Spring does not interpret his theory as excluding any of the others, but as supplementing them.


At the Head Waters of the Niger.—In the expedition to the sources of the Niger, of which Colonel J. K. Trotter recently gave an account before the Royal Geographical Society, the first station of importance mentioned after leaving Freetown was Kruto, where the chief collected his people and organized a dance in honor of his visitors, himself leading and brandishing an elephant's tail. From a place called Kurubundo, reached several days afterward, there was no road farther on, and the chief set his people to work the whole night to cut a path to a village which the party reached the next day. Descending from the heights at the eastern limits of the British sphere to the Tembi, the travelers entered French territory. The guides here regarded their task as ended, and declined to point out the source of the Tembi, averring that it was the seat of the devil, whom they had no anxiety to meet, though they were devil-worshipers. They believed that any one who looked at the Niger source incurred the wrath of the devil and would die within the year, and they regarded the water as poisonous. Their views concerning the water seemed to be confirmed, but the agency of the devil was not made evident. A marked difference was observed in the aspect of the country in the river valley and outside of it. The part outside of the regular valley was covered with canebrakes ten feet high, yellow and sun-scorched. The moment the valley was reached the bush was green, the foliage abundant, and the trees were covered with creepers and trailers which constituted formidable obstacles. Such differences are characteristic of West Africa. The commission were disappointed at not finding the elevation of the Niger sources higher, 3,379 feet being the maximum recorded. The adjacent country was, however, distinctly mountainous, though none of the summits exceeded six thousand feet. The people in whose country this part of the journey lay exhibited a great love of music. The majority of them were pagans. Occasionally a Mussulman town was passed, and it was remarkable to observe how far the Mohammedans were in advance of the pagans in wealth, comparative civilization, and intelligence. The author regarded all the natives of the west coast, in spite of their defects, which are easily apparent and are in general those of a low order of civilization, as very tractable and quite ready to obey the direction of the Europeans. Their best point is their light-heartedness, which indeed he thinks is the bright spot of West Africa. It is a country where the worst jokes never fail to be appreciated, and where one is certain of bringing down the house without any claim to being a wit.


The Wastes of Civilization.—Improvident Civilization was the subject of the chairman's address by Prof. R. T. Colburn, in the Section of Social and Economic Science of the American Association. Touching the currency question, the speaker observed that when we speak of value, equivalency, wealth, risk, trust, distrust, panic, prosperity, we are dealing not with concrete substances like gold pieces, but with states of mind. Yet these ideas lie at the foundation of commercial exchanges and monetary science. "Have any of you ever imagined what would happen if some modern Rosicrucian should succeed in the turning of base metals cheaply into gold?. . . Such a discovery would introduce into the world of commerce, and indeed into all fiscal relations of men, an appalling confusion: first, by a general rise of prices; and, second, by a dislocation of fixed payments of interest, salaries, and otherwise. Among other curious results we should witness would be a change of side s and tunes between the advocates of the gold and silver standards. . . . The same thing would happen, only more slowly, if a vast deposit of gold were unearthed; and if, after gold was thus discredited by a practically inexhaustible supply, the attempt were made to put silver in its place (the price of which would be enormously enhanced), this state of things would be liable in its turn to be upset by similar discoveries." By precipitating the necessity of inventing some more efficient tool of exchanges, a scientific and more stable stable enumerator of values, the after benefits to mankind of such an event might compensate for all the disaster it would temporarily cost. The speaker declared our present civilization not abreast of the knowledge of the time and not yielding to mankind nearly the amount of comfort and well-being it might be made to do. As examples of its defects shown in the improvident tendencies of modern life, the speaker cited the waste of warfare and armament, the decadence of races, pernicious competition, spendthrift luxury, the blight of parasitism, the power of superstition, and the diversity of languages.


Legislation against Insects and Fungi.—Referring to the principles upon which legislation against insects and fungi injurious to vegetation rests, and recognizing that such laws are effective only to a limited extent. Garden and Forest suggests that "it does not follow that because the enforcement of a law is not certain it is therefore unwise to enact it. It is true that habitual disobedience to any law breeds to a certain extent contempt for all laws, but it is also true that the expression of the intelligence of a commonwealth on its statute book is of itself an educating force. Laws against forest fires, for instance, help to instruct people who have never given the subject attention as to the enormous amount of property fires sweep away. It has been estimated that a million and a half of dollars every day would not pay for the losses inflicted upon agriculture throughout the United States from insects and fungous diseases. . . . If we are not yet prepared to enforce wholesome laws to prevent this loss, we certainly ought to do everything possible toward creating a sentiment that will enforce them." The assumption on which these laws rest is defined to be that no man has a right to permit his premises to be a breeding ground for pests which will bring loss upon his neighbors when by due diligence he can prevent this. If the trouble does not come from his own carelessness, it is right that the state should pay him as it pays for the destruction of diseased cattle.


Vegetation of the Mammoth Cave.—Notes have been taken by R. Ellsworth Call, during frequent visits to the Mammoth Cave, of its flora; but the list, even including the molds and mildews found growing upon the remains of lunches taken in by parties, is a meager one. The plants are, of course, all cryptogams. Several of the forms occur in the greatest abundance in the region beyond the rivers of the cave, because, probably, many spores are introduced with the lunches. A small Peziza on very old, water-soaked timbers in the Mammoth Dome still persists in presenting reddish coloration, notwithstanding that the forms at present found must represent a generation quite remote from the one originally introduced. In some places the great white patches of Mucor mucedo are conspicuous by their size and great delicacy. Over the Bottomless Pit this fungus hangs down in long festoons of a white cottony consistence. In other places it runs wild over the soil surrounding decaying timbers. These forms are the most conspicuous in the wastes of the cave, but are often passed by, being mistaken for sheets or balls of white paper. Some of the forms of fungi are common to mines, where they grow under similar conditions to those prevailing in the Mammoth Cave. The constant temperature of the cave, 54°, is somewhat below that adapted to the abundant production of most forms of lower fungi.


Wreaths.—While the modern English limit the use of wreaths to funeral purposes, it was, as Mr. Talfourd Ely shows in his paper read before the Archæological Institute, among the ancients a sign of feasting and joy; and if their dead were crowned, it was to mark them as still partaking of the pleasures of this world. Religion originally prompted the use of the garland, which may have been connected with the widespread belief in the supernatural powers of trees and plants. Wreaths were employed as bandages to assuage headache resulting from debauch, and certain plants were believed to exercise a prophylactic power against the effects of wine. Floral decoration plays a great part in Greek poetry, while among the early Romans the use of wreaths in public was limited to religious functions and as marks of distinction connected with services performed to the state—a function largely derived from the Etruscans. In Greece the single wreath of olive, etc., as a reward for athletes superseded the prizes of intrinsic value offered in heroic times. Wreaths of laurel, myrtle, vine leaves, or flowers, were commonly worn at symposia, and are thus represented on vases. A few such wreaths have been found preserved in Egypt. The manufacture of garlands is depicted in several Pompeiian pictures. Gold crowns were frequently modeled in the form of leaves. Other materials for wreaths were wool and artificial leaves and flowers of horn or silk. Much may be learned about wreaths in the writings of Theophrastus, Plutarch, Pliny, Atheuæus, and Gellius, and from inscriptions.


Scenery of Spitzbergen.—Sir William M. Conway and his companions found Spitzbergen, of which they were the first explorers, a very different country from what it was supposed to be. The general impression was that a continuous ice cap would be found, and they expected it; but "in place of a frozen surface they met with crevassed sloppy glaciers, surrounded by miles of quaking bogs and innumerable watercourses"—a perpetual thaw produced by the perpetual day of a brief arctic summer, in a region emerging, as it were, from a glacial epoch. Of course, the opposite conditions of relentless ice prevail in winter. Why should men be attracted to such countries, as arctic explorers who have gone once seem to be time and again? Sir William gives one of the reasons. "The arctic glory," he says, "is a thing apart, wilder, rarer, and no less superb than the glory of any other region of this beautiful world. Here man has no place, and there is no sign of his handiwork. Nature completes her own intentions unhelped and unhindered by him. Such pure snows no Alpine height presents, nor such pale blue skies, nor that marvelous, remote, opalescent sea with its white flocks and its yet more distant shores. No Alpine outlook penetrates through such atmosphere, so mellow, so rich." There are days, the reviewer of Sir William's book in the Athenæum adds—rare days—of glorious cloud effects, when faint mists, delicate and gray, brood on the fiords and almost obliterate the bases of the hills, leaving their tops to stand out clear against a sky mottled with brilliant flocks of cloudlets. The beauties of Spitzbergen are found not as in true mountain regions in the forms of the hills, but in the atmospheric colors and effects. The landscapes have the charm of breadth, of horizontal lines, rather than any sublimity or picturesqueness. "The whole country," says Sir William, "is interesting from a scientific point of view because of the rapidity with which its surface is being modeled into such forms as were impressed in glacial times on the more temperate and inhabited parts of northern Europe."


Dancing Ostriches.—The execution of a kind of waltz is described by Mr. S. C. Cronright Schreiner as a common practice among ostriches. When there are a number of them, they will start off in the morning and, after running a few hundred yards, will stop, and with raised wings will whirl rapidly round till they are stupefied, or perhaps break a leg. The males pose also before fighting and to make their court. They kneel on their ankles, opening their wings, and balancing themselves alternately forward and backward or to one side or the other, while the neck is stretched on a level with the back and the head strikes the sides, now on the right, now on the left, while the feathers are bristling. The bird appears at this time so absorbed in its occupation as to forget all that is going on around him, and can be approached and caught. The male alone utters a cry, which sounds much like an effort to speak with the mouth shut tight. The omnivorous qualities of the ostrich have hardly been exaggerated. It swallows oranges, small turtles, fowls, kittens, and bones. Mr. Schreiner tells of one swallowing also a box of peaches, tennis balls, several yards of fencing wire, and half a dozen cartridges. One followed the workmen and picked up the wire as they cut it. Most frequently the ostrich does not swallow each dainty separately, but collects several in its throat and then swallows them all at once. Sometimes it is strangled. Its windpipe is then cut, the obstacle taken out, and the wound sewed up, when all goes well again.


Gypsum in Kansas.—The gypsum deposits of Kansas are described by Mr. G. P. Grimsley in the Kansas University Quarterly as occurring in a belt that trends northeast-southwest across the State, two hundred and thirty miles long, while the bed of exposed carried down by circulating water. In the western part of the area solution has carved out caves and underground channels, leaving in many places natural bridges of gypsum. The rock is snowy white. Many of the plaster mills use earthy gypsum deposits, which are common, furnishing what is called "gypsum dirt." This is directly calcined, with small labor and expense. These beds, which lie in low, swampy ground, were probably formed by deposits from springs, aided by wash from the hillsides, and are recent. The rock gypsums were deposited in arms of the sea. Eleven mills are engaged in the manufacture of plaster.


Mythological Correspondences.—An attempt has been made by Dr. E. B. Tylor to use correspondence in culture as a means of tracing lines of connection and intercourse between ancient and modern peoples. Good evidence of this class is furnished by mythical beliefs notwithstanding their lack of objective value. The conception of weighing in a spiritual balance the judgment of the dead, first appearing in Egypt, is traced thence in a series of variants from Eastern Buddhism to Western Christendom. The associated doctrine of the Bridge of the Dead, which separates the good passing over from the wicked who fall into the abyss, of the ancient Persian religion, reaches likewise to the extremities of Asia and Europe. Historical ties are practically constituted by these mythical beliefs, which connect the great religions of the world and serve as lines along which their interdependence can be followed. Similar evidences exist of Asiatic influences under which the pre-Columbian civilization of America took shape. In the religion of old Mexico four great scenes in the journey of the soul in the land of the dead are mentioned by early Spanish writers, and are depicted in the Aztec Vatican Codex. They are the crossing of the river, the fearful passage of the soul between two mountains that clash together, the soul's climbing up the mountain set with sharp obsidian knives, and the dangers of the wind carrying such knives in its blast. These pictures correspond with scenes from Buddhist hells or purgatories as depicted on the Japanese temple scrolls. So close and complete analogies of Buddhist ideas in Mexico constitute a correspondence that precludes any explanation except direct transmission from one religion to another. All these and other analogies support the view that the natives of America reached their level of civilization.


A Versatile Man.—A remarkably versatile man, nearly equally eminent as a diplomatist, naturalist, and ethnologist, was Brian Houghton Hodgson, a British officer in the India service, who died in 1894, ninety-four years old. An attack of fever while he was studying at Calcutta sent him to the hill country of Kumaon, where as assessor of the little farms he had to traverse precipitous mountain paths, crossing dangerous rivers with the help of men swimming on gourds or by bridges which were only ladders suspended from cables, became friends with the people, and imbibed a taste for natural history. Next, as assistant in Nepaul, he began the collections of manuscripts, texts, and religious tracts with which he endowed the libraries of Europe and Asia, hunting them up in the archives of Buddhist monasteries and buying them from traffickers and monks. The Buddhist collections of seven of the most famous Orientalist libraries began with these gifts, and Eugène Burnouf, who was indebted to one of these collections for the materials of his great work on the History of Buddhism, said that he collected a larger body of original documents than had up to that time been gathered in either Asia or Europe. He first brought the Thibetan classics within the range of the Indian and European scholar, presenting the libraries with two copies of the collection of three hundred and forty-five folios, one of which was a gift to him from the Grand Lama. His published essays corrected the misinformation and dissipated the fantastic theories that had prevailed on these subjects. Retiring from active service, he went to Darjeeling and engaged in the study of Himalayan natural history. He discovered thirty-nine new genera and species, contributed "a vast number of papers on Himalayan mammals, raised himself. . .to the highest rank among the original ornithologists of the day," and presented collections to a number of societies and museums. An expert is quoted as saying that "in some respects he was in advance of the science of the day. He was fully alive to the importance of geographical distribution, and was the first to attempt a demarcation of the zones of life resulting from differences of elevation in the Himalayas."