Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/April 1898/Fragments of Science

Fragments of Science.

The Origin of Coral Island Forms.—This much-discussed question has been raised again by the boring operation of Professors Sollas and David at the island of Funifuti. Their results, as far as they have been announced, seem to confirm Darwin's theory of subsidence. But now we have a letter (American Journal of Science, February, 1898) from Alexander Agassiz, who is at present with a scientific expedition in the Fiji Islands, announcing observations which seem to point toward elevation rather than subsidence. Professor David's bore hole at Funifuti was carried down six hundred and ninety feet, and a preliminary examination of the core indicated that the reef had been built up in the immediate neighborhood, at any rate, of growing coral. Portions of true reef were found in various positions throughout the whole depth. There seems, however, to be a possibility that the boring was situated on a very steep slope of volcanic rock, covered by a talus of coral débris from a reef on the summit. A further and fuller report from Professor David will no doubt clear up some of these uncertainties. The material received from Mr. Agassiz is only that contained in a private letter. Much to his own surprise, he found the general appearance of the islands to indicate, if not prove, that elevation rather than subsidence had taken place. After recalling Professor Dana's statement of the beautiful illustration which the Fijis gave of the gradual changes brought about by subsidence, he says: "My surprise was great, therefore, to find within a mile from Suva an elevated reef about fifty feet thick and a hundred and twenty feet above the level of the sea, the base of the reef being underlaid by what is locally called soapstone, probably a kind of stratified volcanic mud." Many other traces of extensive elevation were noted. At Tarutha, for instance, the coral limestone bluffs were probably eight hundred feet high. From a series of such observations Mr. Agassiz "is inclined to think that the corals of to day have actually played no part in the shaping of the circular or irregular atolls scattered among the Fiji Islands; furthermore, that they have had nothing to do in our time with the building up of the barrier reefs surrounding either wholly or in part some of the islands. I also believe that their modifying influence has been entirely limited in the present epoch to the formation of fringing reefs, and that the recent corals living upon the reefs, either of the atolls or of the barriers, form only a crust of very moderate thickness upon the underlying base. This base may be either a flat of an eroded elevated reef or of a similar substructure of volcanic rocks, the nature of that base depending absolutely upon its character when elevated in a former period to a greater height than it now occupies. . . . The Fijis are not situated, as was supposed, in an area of subsidence, but on the contrary, they are in an area of elevation, so that the theory of Darwin and Dana is not applicable to the islands and atolls of the Fiji group." As it was a study of these and similar groups which led Darwin and Dana to adopt their theory of subsidence, Mr. Agassiz seems to dispose of the theory as applied to any islands, although he says in a later paragraph, "The great variety of causes which have been active in shaping the present physiognomy of the reefs and atolls of Fiji shows the impossibility of assigning any one factor . . . as the single cause for the formation of the many different kinds of atolls and barrier-reef islands to be found in the Fiji group." Mr. Agassiz promises a fully illustrated report some time during the coming summer.

New Theories regarding the Rainbow.—The old theory of the rainbow, which is still found in optical text-books, only imperfectly accounts for the true bow and fails entirely to explain the "spurious bows" which often accompany the former. It is usually possible by close examination to distinguish certain colors on the inside edge of the primary which are not consistent with the simple series of spectrum colors, accounted for by the Descartes theory. In a paper on The Intensity of Light in the Neighborhood of a Caustic, Airy seems to have laid the foundation for an adequate theory of the rainbow. Au article in Nature on this subject says that Mr. J. M. Pernter is working out the new theory, and his general conclusions are given as follows: "The greater the drops the more spurious bows." A chief bow of intense pink and green (hardly any blue) indicates drops of diameters ranging from one to two millimetres; intense red always speaks for big drops. Secondaries (spurious bows) of green and violet (the blue is marked by contrast) without yellow, immediately forming the chief bow, correspond to drops of 0.5 millimetre, while five and more secondaries without white and without breaks mark drops of 0.1 millimetre. A partly white bow is produced by drops of 0.06 millimetre, and when the drops are still smaller, a real white bow with orange-yellow and blue margins is the result. The net result of these elaborate investigations will be to add a new interest to a natural phenomenon already endowed with many associations of magic and beauty."

The Recent Total Eclipse of the Sun.—While there have been no complete reports from any of the observation parties of the total eclipse of the sun of Saturday, January 22, 1898, enough information has been received to indicate that the majority of them were successful and that much data of extreme scientific value has been obtained. The only district in which the weather was not propitious seems to have been southern Russia, only a few good photographs being obtained. A telegram received from the Rev. J. M. Bacon, in charge of the British Astronomical Association at Buxar, announces perfect weather and "observations satisfactory all round." This party is reported to have taken a successful series of cinematograph pictures. The party located at Jeur, from the Lick Observatory, under the direction of Prof. W. D. Campbell, reports very successful observations. The unusually favorable weather, the number of trained observers on the ground, and the delicate and powerful instruments at hand, have evidently combined to make this one of the most important scientific events in the closing years of the century. In calling attention to this fact Nature says: "With such a list of successes we may safely say that this eclipse, as befitting the last one of the century, has surpassed all previous records; but, unlike many eclipses at the beginning of the century, it can not be truly said that the event of Saturday was over at the end of two minutes of totality. To many the eclipse has yet to begin and will last for many months, during which time each line in the spectrum, each streamer of the corona, each prominence on the sun, will be analyzed little by little to discover if we have similar streamers in other coronas or identical lines in our laboratories. It may be confidently expected that the results obtained on Saturday will enable us to solve some of the enigmas of solar phenomena and constitution."

Source of the X Rays.—Professor Trowbridge, of Cambridge, and J. E. Burbank have recently published (American Journal of Science, February, 1898) the results of an investigation into the source of the X rays. The experiments were conducted with Crookes tubes containing no interval between the anode and cathode, so that no discharge in the usual sense occurred in the tubes. A continuous conductor was led through the rarefied tube, and it was discovered that X rays were given off from every element of this conductor at right angles to its surface when a disruptive discharge occurred in the circuit of which the tube formed a part. This remarkable result was obtained by means of the very high electromotive force from a Planté rheostatic machine which was charged by ten thousand storage cells. Among the interesting data obtained were some regarding the so-called Xray burn. When the back of the hand was exposed to the brush discharge from one of these tubes, a peculiar pricking sensation was experienced and all the symptoms of an X-ray burn developed. The skin when examined under a microscope exhibited centers of inflammation surrounded by regions of lesser degrees of burn. It thus seems evident that the so-called X-ray burn is due to an electrification—a discharge at the surface of the skin—and this electrification may or may not be accompanied by the X rays. The results of the experiments are summed up as follows: 1. A Crookes tube inclosing a continuous conductor is well suited, with the employment of high electromotive force, for the study of electric lines of induction. 2. The direction of the so-called X rays and cathode rays can be changed by electric induction. 3. The so called X-ray burn can be produced by an intense state of electrification. 4. The so-called cathode rays and X rays are given off from every element of a continuous conductor at a high stage of the vacuum in a Crookes tube, both when this conductor constitutes the cathode and when it forms the anode of the electrical circuit. The term electric rays, possibly rays of polarization, would appear to be more comprehensive than the terms cathode rays and X rays.

Early Observations of the Zodiacal Light.—Apparently the earliest mention of the zodiacal light is a notice by Diodorus Siculus, of the appearance in the sky, in b. c. 373, "of a great light for several nights, which was called, from its shape, the burning beam." Nicephorus, in his Ecclesiastical History, tells of a remarkable appearance in the sky for a considerable time during the summer and fall of a. d. 410, which he thought could not be a comet, because it had not a stellar nucleus. Cassini saw a similar phenomenon in March, 1668, and his nephew Maraldi another in March, 1702; but Cassini's observation was of a comet, the head of which was not visible to him, while it was seen in the East Indies and at the Cape of Good Hope. The first person to give a definite description of the zodiacal light was Joshua Childrey, who is quoted by W. T. Lynn in the Observatory as saying that "in February, and for a little time before, and a little after, that month (as I have observed several years together), when the Twilight hath almost deserted the Horizon, you shall see a plainly discernible ray of the Twilight striking up toward the Pleiades or seven stars, and seeming almost to touch them. It is to be observed any clear night, but is best illuc nocte. There is no such ray to be observed at any other time of the year (that I can perceive), nor any other ray at that time to be perceived darting up elsewhere. And I believe it hath been and will be constantly visible at that time of the year. But what the cause of it in nature should be, I can not yet imagine, but leave it for further inquiry."

The Importance of Public Baths.—Some interesting statistics are given by Walter Channing regarding the municipal public baths of Brookline, Mass. The baths were opened in January, 1897, and at the time Mr. Channing's article was written, about the middle of May, there had used the baths 17,089 bathers, or an average of 451 daily. A somewhat curious difference was noted between the number of males and females. The bathers during the last six weeks, for instance, being divided as follows: Men and boys, 3,813; women and girls, only 1,080. When the baths were first opened the policy was to have as many free days as possible, but it was found quite impossible to keep order even with the aid of a police officer. Under a new arrangement by which a fee of five cents was charged, which included soap, towels, and bathing dress, a great improvement was manifested, even this small fee seeming to make the bathers more self-respecting and conscientious and doing away with that irresponsible and reckless feeling which an unadulterated charity seems so prone to produce. Instead of the fees decreasing the number of bathers, there was a constant and steady increase. An interesting experiment in connection with these baths is the giving of instruction in swimming to the public-school children. The town pays for this through the school committee. The pupils as well as the teachers have taken great interest, and already large numbers have been taught how to swim. At the end of the school year there will be thorough tests, and certificates of proficiency will be given. Aside from the value which this bath has as a swimming school and healthy recreation ground for the children, its successful continuance can not fail to have a most beneficial effect on the general personal cleanliness and sanitation of the town, a clean individual being much less patient with nasty streets and houses and neighbors, than a dirty one. The importance of the public bath does not seem to be generally appreciated in this country. It is when properly handled one of the most powerful and far reaching of the municipalities' institutions for promoting cleanliness, both mental and physical, and good citizenship; in several of the European states where this fact has been appreciated the public baths of the cities and towns are among their most important institutions.

Industrial Instability in Russia.—Industrial labor in Russia, as pictured in the bulletin of the Musée Social, is usually unstable and can not be depended upon. In most of the shops the workmen scatter at once in the spring. The operatives who come in after the Easter vacation, which lasts several weeks, are generally new ones, who have never worked in that kind of industry, and a new apprenticeship is necessary. Hence arises an obstacle to the development of professional skill. The new hands are very awkward, and are more quickly tired than those who are accustomed to work methodically. The workman is continually changing his place, and passes from one trade to another, as he would from one place to another, becoming now a shop operative and now an agricultural laborer. As M. Anatole Leroy Beaulieu says, he is a nomad. He is not identified with his machine, does not understand it, and does not know how to bring out its latent power. Hence in many industries which have been long organized on the grand scale in the West, the Russian does better work at home in the old way than can be turned out in the factories. Besides this, the Russian working class takes to machines with a bad grace, and will not use them except under compulsion. A curious condition, resulting partly from this disposition, is that when crops are good and the demand for manufactured products is lively, the workmen abandon the shops because they can live without the labor. It is of no use to raise wages, for that offers no attraction to the peasant who has enough to live upon in his usual way. While in the West the best-fed workman is the most efficient, in Russia the one who is satisfied is the most idle. Where women are found in the shops, it is an indication of improvement and of better development and more stable conditions.

Defects of the Metric System.—An admirable summary of the arguments against the enforced adoption of the metric system of weights and measures is presented by Mr. George W. Colles, in a paper read by him before the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Having examined what has been said in favor of the system and against it, he concludes that the claim for its scientific accuracy is not justified, none of its units being what it purports to be; that the metre, as a scientific standard, can claim no superiority over the yard, and leaves us, moreover, without that most useful of measures, the foot; that while uniformity, carried too far, is of doubtful advantage, the metric system in practice has generally served not to introduce but to destroy it, by superadding new methods without replacing old ones; that the decimal divisions, instead of being the greatest advantage of the system, are its most irreparable defect, and of whatever uniformity of division Nature and man are capable, it can never be expressed by the number ten; and that the mind can never think in decimal fractions, but invariably does think in fractions reduced to their lowest terms, so that they are as impossible to get rid of as the mind itself. The English system, the author shows, though, like all things in Nature, it bears the marks of imperfection, the decay of time, and the usages of civilizations long since passed away, yet in its essential elements embodies the wisdom and experience of ages, and is, in fact, the survival of the fittest.

English Composition "as it is Taught."—An idea of the value of instruction in English writing given in our common and preparatory schools may be gained from the report of the Committee on Composition and Rhetoric to the Board of Overseers of Harvard University. The committee gave out as a subject to the students for voluntary composition a description of the instruction and what they thought it was worth. Thirteen hundred and eight students in the college, Scientific School, and Radcliffe College handed in papers. These are classified and compared according to the advancement of the writers in the college course. The most noticeable feature in the papers corresponding with the freshman grade, taken as a whole, is their extreme crudeness of thought and execution; and they reveal various defects in the system of instruction used in the schools from which the writers came. The papers of the next grade were better and showed benefit from instruction received in the previous course, but with evidence of the deficiency in early elementary training still apparent. The work of the writers of the junior class (average age twenty-one years) was satisfactory, but nearly all of them expressed a decided opinion that the instruction given in the preparatory schools in written English is inadequate. All but three of the seventy papers from Radcliffe College were creditable in execution; but none of them indicated any special capacity for observing, or attempted anything in pointing out defects which might be termed a thoughtful solution of them. The papers from the Scientific School were, curiously, "noticeably inferior in nearly all respects." The papers from graduates of normal schools were likewise not what could be reasonably expected from students of such institutions. The chief value of these papers "lies in the indirect or unconscious light they throw upon a curiously heterogeneous system of almost undirected natural growth." They also reveal "what heretofore has been the great defect in the methods of instruction in written English in the common preparatory schools. It has been taught almost wholly objectively, or as an end; almost never incidentally and as a means." In the great majority of these schools "English is still taught, it would seem, not as a mother tongue, but as a foreign language." The committee believes, however, that, taken as a whole, the inferences and conclusions to be drawn from the papers "are distinctly and unmistakably encouraging, because they reveal wherein is to be found the root of the trouble, and indicate the steps now being taken to remove that trouble. It is remarked that while methods of instruction are often unsparingly criticised, schools and teachers are, as a rule, kindly spoken of.

The International Scientific Catalogue.—The proceedings of the International Bibliographical Conference of 1896 in London concerning the International Catalogue of Scientific Literature, Dr. Cyrus Adler's summarized account of which has only recently been published, afford many points of interest. Among them was the discussion as to the definition of a contribution to science for the purpose of the catalogue. It was decided, with the help of a committee to which the conference had to refer the subject, to mean a contribution to the mathematical, physical, or natural sciences, "such as, for example, mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, mineralogy, geology, botany, mathmatical and physical geography, zoology, anatomy, physiology, general and experimental pathology, experimental psychology, and anthropology, to the exclusion of what are sometimes called the applied sciences—the limits of the several sciences to be determined hereafter." The discussion related not so much to the subjects that should be included, as to the terms under which they should be described and classified. It was further decided, without dissent, that in judging whether a publication is to be considered a contribution to science suitable for entry in the catalogue, regard should be had to its contents, irrespective of the channel through which it is published." The importance of this rule was emphasized by several German delegates, some of whom pointed out that trade journals, and even a daily paper which was named, often contain scientific articles of great value. Those who are diposed to ridicule "newspaper science" must hereafter qualify their flings. Regard is to be had first in the catalogue to the requirements of scientific investigators; entries are to be both by subjects and by authors' names; the catalogue is to be issued by a central bureau to be located in London, with the Royal Society advising, and in English, with authors' names and titles in their own language; and to be begun January 1, 1900. The English (including American) element was influential in the conference, and none of the delegates had more force in its deliberations than the American representatives, Prof. Simon Newcomb and Dr. J. S. Billings. The American department of the catalogue will be under the direction of the Smithsonian Institution, and an appropriation of ten thousand dollars is asked from Congress to carry on the work.

A Musical Experiment.—A somewhat interesting musical experiment was recently made by Prof. E. E. Slosson, of the University of Wyoming. Twenty-two persons—seven men and fifteen women—each provided with paper and writing materials, were given a pianoforte concert, and at the expiration of each piece were requested to write down the impressions received from the music. Only one of the twenty-two was a professional musician. The pieces played were: a, Chopin funeral march (sonata, op. 35); b, S. F. Powell nocturne, Hope (op. 4, No. 1; c, S. F. Powell nocturne, Solicitude (op. 3, No. 2); d, Handel's aria, He was Despised and Rejected of Men (The Messiah); e, Chopin nocturne (op. 15); and f, Schubert, Liszt Serenade. The conclusions drawn, from an examination of the answers returned, seemed to show that music has a somewhat definite emotional content, and that impression of this is received by the average listener, but with varying intensity. The formal content seems to be furnished entirely by the mood, associations, or temperament of the individual. A great difference exists both in the capacity of individuals to receive definite impressions and of composers to convey them. To overcome a strong individual mood requires music of extremely strong expressiveness.

Ice Caves.—Three principal forms in which ice enduring all the year round is found are mentioned by Mr. Edwin Swift Balch in his paper on Ice Caves and the Causes of Subterranean Ice: glaciers, ice gorges, and ice caves. Glaciers are formed from the winter snows, which by their own weight, and melting and regelation, have accumulated into a mass of ice. Ice gorges or gullies occur in fissures or ravines, at an altitude greatly below the general snow line of the district, where the winter snow is sufficiently protected from the sun to endure as snow or ice through the summer months. The author has, for instance, found lumps of ice in King's Ravine, on Mount Adams, in the White Mountains, among the big bowlders, late in September. The ice in such gullies is formed in the same manner as that of glaciers, or that on ponds and rivers, by the cold of winter and the melting of the snows. Ice caves are roofed, and the ice is formed directly within them, and is not, except perhaps near the entrance, solidified snow. The roof, while not admitting the winter snow, is a protection against warm summer rains, and cuts off radiation—acting as a protector against heat, and tempering the cold. The caves vary greatly in their positions, shapes, and sizes. They are found in various parts of Europe, Asia, and America, mostly in the smaller ranges or in the outliers of the snowy ranges, generally in limestone and occasionally in basaltic formations. Many are found in the Jura, a few in Switzerland, a few in the Italian Alps, a number in the eastern Alps; there are some in Hungary, several in Russia, one on the Peak of Teneriffe, several in Siberia, one in Kunduz in central Asia, one in Japan, and one in Korea. Twenty-nine places are mentioned where subterranean ice occurs in North America, two of which are in Pennsylvania The dimensions of the caves vary greatly, some being great halls, three hundred or four hundred feet long, and some small tunnels in which one can not stand up straight. The forms assumed by underground ice are different from those visible in glaciers or icebergs. There are no séracs or crevasses, but stalactite forms are very common. The ice in the bottoms follows the shape of the floor. Sometimes ice is found in them of the peculiar structure called prismatic—breaking into regular prisms. Holes or runnels are formed in the lowest parts of the ice floors, where they are cut out by the melting water; and lakes and pools sometimes occur in them.

Scientific Palmistry.—The character and direction of the movements of the digits both in hand and foot, Sir William Turner observed in his anthropological address at the British Association, are imprinted on the integument of palm and sole. In the palm of the human hand the oblique direction of the movement of the fingers toward the thumb, when bent in grasping an object, is shown in the obliquity of the two great grooves which cross the palm from the root of the index to the root of the little finger. The deep curved groove, extending to the wrist, which marks off the eminence of the ball of the thumb from the rest of the palm, is associated with the opponent action of the thumb, which is so marked in man that the tip of the thumb can be brought in contact with a large part of the palmar surface of the hand and fingers. Faint longitudinal grooves in the palm, situated in a line with the fingers, express slight folds which indicate where the fingers are approximated to or separated from one another in adduction and abduction. In some hands a longitudinal groove marks off the muscles of the ball of the little finger from the rest of the palm, and is associated with a slight opponent action of that digit, by the combination of which with a partial opposition of the thumb the hand can be hollowed into a cup—the drinking cup of Diogenes. These grooves are present in the infant's hands at the time of birth, and the author has seen them in an embryo. They appear in the palm months before the infant can put its hand to any use. They are not, therefore, acquired after birth. Grooves are also seen in the palm of the hand of the anthropoid apes, differing in various respects from those of man, and respectively characteristic of the group in which they are found.

The Psychology of Humor.—A recent number of the American Journal of Psychology contains an inquiry into the psychology of "tickling laughter and the comic," by Prof. G. Stanley Hall and Arthur Allin. Their material was obtained by means of a widely circulated syllabus, sent with the request that the questions be answered, and the sheet then returned to the authors. About seven hundred answers were received, many of these from school teachers having the supervision of a number of pupils, so that the real number of individuals heard from amounted to probably three thousand. The authors discuss the answers received, and then go on to a consideration of the general subject. The many theories since Aristotle, concerning wit and humor, are shown to be either purely speculative or extremely circumscribed in the range of their induction and hence furnishing no foothold for further research. Among the older conceptions of the essentials of humor mentioned is Hobbes's: "The passion of laughter is the sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminence in ourselves, by comparison with the inferiority of others, or with our own formerly." Dryden defined wit as a "propriety of thoughts and words, or thoughts and words elegantly adapted to the subject." Dr. Johnson thought it "a combination of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Richard Blackstone conceived it as "a series of high and exalted ferments." Kant defines laughter "as an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing." Mr. J. L. Ford says: "Careful study of the work turned out by professional joke makers reveals the fact that fully nine tenths of their humor is founded on the simple idea of disaster or misfortune. . . . For a great many years nearly all our national humor had for its foundations the mother-in-law, the goat, the stove-pipe inebriety, and the banana peel." The authors find as a result of their inquiry that all current theories are speculative and inadequate; they offer several good suggestions for a further study of the subject, two of which are the use of the camera and phonograph as automatic registers. The most important result of the inquiry seems to be the setting forth of how little we know about this department of mental phenomena.

The Blue Jay's Food.—A recent inquiry by F. E. L. Beal, assistant of the United States Department of Agriculture, into the food of the blue jay resulted in some unexpected results. The bird is distributed over the whole of the United States east of the great plains, and has a bad reputation, being charged not only with habitually robbing the nests of smaller birds of their eggs and young, but also with being very destructive to the farmer's grain. Mr. Beal examined two hundred and ninety-two stomachs in all. The remains of a small bird were found in two of these and portions of eggshells in three. He found that vegetable stuff made up three quarters of the blue jay's food, a good share of which is nuts and mast and wild berries. Their insect food makes up about twenty-three per cent of the whole, and consists largely of noxious and destructive sorts. He concludes as follows: "The most striking point in the study of the food of the blue jay is the discrepancy between the testimony of field observers concerning the bird's nest-robbing proclivities and the results of stomach examinations. The accusations of eating eggs and young birds are certainly not sustained, and it is futile to attempt to reconcile the conflicting statements on this point, which must be left until more accurate observations have been made. In destroying insects the jay undoubtedly does much good. Most of the predaceous beetles which it eats do not feed on other insects to any great extent. On the other hand, it destroys some grasshoppers and caterpillars and many noxious beetles, such as scarabæids, click beetles, weevils, buprestids, chrysomelids, and tenebrionids. The blue jay gathers its fruit from Nature's orchard and vineyard, not from man's. Corn is the only vegetable food for which the farmer suffers any loss, and here the damage is small. In fact, the examination of nearly three hundred stomachs shows that the blue jay certainly does far more good than harm."