Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/June 1898/Fragments of Science

Fragments of Science.

An Old-time Naturalist and his Guests.—A pleasing picture is given in Mrs. W. Pitt Bymes's Social Hours with Celebrities of the person and home of Charles Waterton, a famous English naturalist and traveler of the former part of the century, a picture of whom astride an alligator is one of the early recollections of the writer. He had constructed in his house, for the mystification of his visitors, an odd figure of the missing link; was distinguished by some harmless eccentricities and affectations, and had a wonderfully intimate knowledge of the habits and proclivities of different animals. By the aid of this trait he seemed to be able to entice within his domain any annual he wished. His method was simply to prepare an attractive and convenient lodging for them suited to their taste. It was soon discovered and taken possession of by those it was intended for. For the accommodation of the starlings on his place he had some holes bored in an old tower, when each was at once occupied and made a nesting place by a family of the birds. "Finding his scheme successful, he next created a couple of towers expressly for the accommodation of these interesting birds, securing them immunity from the inroads of vermin by building them on solid stone pedestals, and with excusable pride he used to show to his guests the successful results of his ingenious arrangement." Many other birds were induced in a similar way to make their home on his estate. Having a place for their reception, the owls flocked to it at once, and "he soon had owls of various species by contriving such abodes as each according to its special habits preferred, and, having secured them, each colony added a new pleasure to his life." Among other measures for making Walton Hall pleasant for his animal friends, he prohibited the use of any kind of firearm within the grounds. At last, however, the rooks and rabbits became so numerous that it was necessary to hunt them out with guns and dogs. Yet the waterfowl, "of which there was a beautiful variety. . . . floated leisurely away from the noisy reports and seemed to think themselves perfectly secure on the opposite side of the lake; while the herons—perhaps to get a better view of the sport—perched on the highest branches of the trees till the battue was over. This heronry was one of his most successful achievements, accomplished by the simple mode of attraction I have already described. . . One of his keenest enjoyments was to take his guests up to the telescope room, where the instrument was always set in the direction of the heronry, in order that he might the more completely study the habits of its interesting inhabitants, and observe the strange construction of their nests and the curious positions they would assume."


Hygiene of a Natural Life.—A view of the actual conditions of health under a substantially natural manner of living among the natives of Labrador was given by Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, chancellor of McGill University, in an address before the Middlesex Hospital Medical School. So long, the author says, as the natives keep to their own food and habits—they live largely on meat and fish, always cooked, and upon wild berries and fruits—they generally retain their teeth. But in the case of the natives from the interior, who adopted the food of the white men, they soon lost their teeth, and their lives were often shortened. Although the climate is severe and the summers are short, the country is healthy, and no doubt the open air conduces to freedom from disease. A form of Turkish or rather vapor bath has been in vogue among them as far back as we have any record. They rig up a small tent, put intensely hot stones inside, and pour water upon them, and then take the bath, which is regarded as very beneficial in many complaints. They have decoctions of herbs, and understand the preparation of nourishing foods, which are given in cases of failing strength and vitality. A decoction made from boiling crushed bones and marrow is largely used in cases of lung disease. Amputations are occasionally performed by the natives themselves, or by the European and Canadian residents, in a primitive way. What may be termed a primitive and somewhat rude form of antiseptic treatment was practiced in the district many years before Lord Lister introduced his great discovery. For the treatment of wounds, ulcerated sores, etc., a pulp was made by boiling the inner bark of the juniper tree. The liquor which resulted was used for washing and treating the wounds, and the bark, beaten into a plastic, pliable mass, was applied, after the thorough cleansing of the wound, so as to form a soft cushion, bending itself to every inequality of the sore. Scrupulous cleanliness was observed, and fresh material was used for every application. The incident shows that while discoveries and inventions are being made in centers of the highest civilization, they may yet be practiced in a primitive way in distant localities hard of access, while the world of science is still unaware of them.


Free Traveling Libraries in Wisconsin.—The institution of Free Traveling Libraries in Wisconsin was suggested to the Hon. J. H. Stout by the observation that the excellent public library at Menomonie was used by only a very small proportion of the country people entitled to draw upon it. Finding that the failure to take out books in larger numbers was due to the difficulty of getting and returning them and not to lack of appreciation of them, he procured five hundred books well chosen for popular reading, divided them into sixteen small libraries each containing thirty volumes, and distributed them, with rules and directions concerning the use of them, at suitable places in the country, to be sent, when that constituency had done with them, to some other, when one of the other libraries should take their place—and so on. The libraries went into operation in May, 1896. The demand that arose for the books encouraged the founder to make additions, and now there are thirty-seven traveling libraries in Dunn County, thirty-four of which are in active service, two are kept for reserves, and one has been exhibited in many parts of the State as a sample. Mr. Frank A. Hutchins, in his account of the libraries, says that the eagerness of the public for them "is touching, and as evident among people who read little as among the more intelligent." Illiterate parents seemed to know, almost by instinct, that if their children could read good books freely, they would be likely to be better men and women, and to hold better stations in life. Even rough men acknowledged the value of good literature. One place that had been described as a "hell hole" took the books notwithstanding its bad reputation, and in a few weeks showed double the circulation of its "scoffing neighbor." A storekeeper took in a library, hoping it would help get the loafing boys out of his store. "They are good boys," he said, "except for their habit of loafing, but they haven't anything to do and I can't turn them out." Of the thirty-four stations in Dunn County, twenty-two are in farmhouses, nine in post offices, two in country stores, and one in a railway station. The success of the libraries in all parts of the county was immediate and the interest has continued to grow, an increase in the circulation being mentioned in each succeeding report. Other places have taken up the idea, and there are now one hundred traveling libraries at work in Wisconsin.


A Tornado's Work on Trees.—After the tornado that swept a part of the city of St. Louis, May 27, 1896, a study was made of the injury done to the trees, the general results of which, with some of the technical details, were communicated to the Academy of Sciences by Mr. Hermann von Schrenck. Hardly a tree escaped injury of some kind, except possibly a few cypresses, which with their conical forms yielded to the force of the wind. Some of the uprooted maples and elms were simply turned over, and when straightened up a few days afterward resumed their former growth. Most of them, however, lost all their principal branches, and some were reduced to the trunk with perhaps two forks. These were trimmed up to look like very heavily pollarded trees. The new leaves were in their most active growth, and the destruction of them was very marked. The leaves were wet, and the injuries were evidently largely due to rubbing against branches. Flying missiles of various kinds aided in the destruction. "Grains of sand and small bits of wood and stone, flying through the air at velocities ranging from fifty to eighty miles per hour, were well able to shred the tender leaves." Many trees were left with hardly a sound leaf on their remaining branches. Other injuries were inflicted, not so evident as those to branches and leaves. "Numerous trees had trunks of sufficient elasticity to bend before the force of the wind without breaking. In swaying to and fro, the bark was considerably stretched on one side and compressed on the opposite side, and in the next instant the conditions were reversed. When this took place repeatedly, the bark was torn horizontally for several feet, sometimes on but one side, more often on both. The violent wrenching of a tree with a large top, like the maple, produced considerable strain upon the bark, especially when the force applied was a twisting one. When the strain was too great, the bark came off in sheets, or split longitudinally. . . . In many trees there was no outward sign of this injury for several months; not until the loosened bark died did any shrinkage take place, but then it split and curled up." Wounds made by flying pieces of wood and slate cutting away bark or imbedding themselves in the wood healed rapidly. In the course of June the axillary buds for 1897 on such twigs as were left began to unfold, and produced new leaves; and by September a growth of six inches or more had been made from these buds. In trees that had no such buds to fall back upon, numerous adventitious buds broke out from all parts of the trunk and remaining larger branches. In many of the most injured trees this growth was very small, and they failed to revive the next spring.


Archæology a True Science.—Following Sir John Evans's presidential address in the British Association on the Antiquity of Man, Lord Kelvin spoke for the claims of archæology to be placed among the strict sciences. There is too much tendency among scientific men, he said, to include under the term true science nothing but dead physical facts and certain definite branches of biological knowledge. To himself it had never seemed at all intelligible how geology could cease to be scientific when it touched upon human history. The fact that there was a poet or historian to narrate the history of a period did not take away this scientific character. We must never forget that geology, going to the earliest period of time when life first appeared upon the earth, brought us down to the present day. Volcanic changes of the earth such as are taking place now, remains of ancient action such as the marvelous lake of lava in Hawaii, are just as much subjects of geological research as if no reporter or narrator existed to record their history. The archæologist of mediæval history and the archæologist who has gone before human history and has helped the geologist to bring into definite connection the epochs of the world's existence, must all be welcomed as scientific geologists.


Adalteration with Antiseptics.—Special attention is given in the second report on Food Products of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station to adulteration by antiseptics. These substances are for the most part, when taken in sufficient quantities and degrees of concentration, poisonous; and whether any one of them shall operate as a harmless preventive or remedy, or as an unhealthful or even fatal poison, to the consumer of food and drink containing it, depends upon the quantity and frequency of the dose. A number of successful food preservatives—such as sugar, alcohol, vinegar, lactic acid, salt, smoke, spices, and "sweet herbs"—are at once recognizable and known by their taste or odor. They are all commonly reckoned harmless to sound digestion and good health when taken in moderation, and are reputed to be unhealthful to certain classes of invalids, or when taken in excess. Within about twenty years several powerful antiseptics have come into very extensive and more or less surreptitious use, that are not recognizable in food or drinks by either taste or odor. These are salicylic acid, benzoic acid, and borax or boric acid. Salicylic acid, the essential ingredient of wintergreen and oil of birch, and benzoic acid, which exists in various balsams and gum resins, in the oils of marjoram, cassia, cinnamon, and cloves, in vanilla, sweet flag, plums, and cranberries, are efficacious only in the free state. Borax and boric acid are effective, cheap, odorless, and tasteless when mixed with food, and are much used. The testimony is conflicting as to the effect of the continued and frequent use of these preservatives upon the health of consumers. There are some falsifications which the public have long tolerated and people are careless of, as those of mustard, which is now sometimes hard to find strong enough to make a plaster of. "This kind of adulteration and the lying statements by which it is forced on the public have so habituated people to poor articles and low prices that purchasers of the recent generations probably do not know, in many cases, what genuine goods are, and do not realize what waste of money as well as loss of satisfaction there is in buying so-called 'cheap' wares, for which, considering the real value of the articles, they actually pay an exorbitant price."


Variety in Tobacco Pipes.—The pipe is treated by the Baron de Watteville as on the point of vanishing from use, being about to be superseded by the cigarette; even the Dutch, our author says, are abandoning their pipes and smoking paper-wrapped stems instead. There is evidently great exaggeration in this assertion, for we meet evidence daily in groups of fashionable smokers that the pipe has not disappeared, and is in no danger of going out of use. M. de Watteville's study of pipes nevertheless presents many features of interest. Consider the materials of which they are made, and the variety in their shapes. White clay is the predominant material for the bowls in England and the adjacent continental countries, red clay in the Mediterranean basin, black clay in Africa, porcelain and elm root in the Germanic countries, stone among some savage tribes, and wood almost everywhere; but where wood is not to be obtained, as in the arctic regions, fossil ivory, whales' bones, or walrus tusks are used. The stems are of wood or horn, of more or less artistic shapes among Europeans; rough ox horn in South Africa, antelope horn along the sources of the Nile, cherry in Hungary and Armenia, jasmine in Persia, bamboo in hot countries, gold, silver, or wood or leather trimmed with precious materials for the lips of wealthy Orientals, and reeds for the poor; and all draw and puff their smoke with equal pleasure. The form and size of the bowls depend more or less on what is smoked, and the fashion of smoking. And what is smoked? Tobacco by the Europeans of Europe and America—when it is not something else under that name. And these are as nothing in comparison with the hundreds of millions of Asiatics and other hundreds of millions of Africans who use opium, hemp, toadstools, rose leaves, tea leaves, cabbage leaves, and what not. We might say that everything is smoked, except tobacco. While tobacco pipes are generally of moderate capacity, some German and Danish smokers use pipe bowls nine or ten inches long and wide in proportion, and there are pipes in Africa and Damascus that will hold nearly a pound. There are pipes of two and more bowls, some Dutch seventeenth-century pipes with six and seven bowls, each having an elaborately shaped stem, being mentioned by M. de Watteville; and other pipes having several stems. The stems vary in length from the stubby pipe that the workman can smoke as he works, to the elongated six-or eight-foot coiled tubes of the Oriental nargilehs. The length of the stem is partly a matter of climate: short stems for cold countries, long for hot ones. The decorations of pipes are subject to the caprices of fancy and the prevailing fashion. Some Oriental pipes are fairly worth their weight in gold by virtue of the jewels with which they are adorned. They often bear coats of arms or a political device, like a cigar holder of the German Kulturkampf period, on which Bismarck was represented as a shoemaker. At every inhalation the figure raised its right arm and brought its hammer heavily down upon the back of a priest.


History in Minerals.—Palæomineralogy is the name which M. J. Thoulet has given to the study of the traces that events have left upon minerals, by means of which we may learn facts in the past history of the rock, whether it be a few days or months or thousands of years old. It aims to reconstitute the geography of the earth in its most remote epochs, in attempting which we have to take cognizance of the most minute details, as we would do in exploring a hitherto unknown island. The methods of this branch of investigation are illustrated by the studies of Sorby on the formation of liquid inclusions in crystals; by those of Des Cloiseaux and Maillard on the optical deformation of minerals, as a result of which we are able to ascertain whether the feldspar in the rocks has or has not been subjected to a red heat. Other experiments, physical and mechanical, permit us to read similar lessons in the history of minerals. Thus Daubrée, after studying the effects of wearing upon pebbles, remarked that "every grain of sand bears its history inscribed upon it." In this way M. Redgers traced the origin of the dunes of Holland to the Scandinavian rocks. Relations have been discovered between the shapes of grains of sand and the velocity of the currents in which they have been carried and the distance. The length of time the grain has been exposed to the action of water is a subject for further study; and it is hoped that it will be possible some time, by the examination of the fossils contained in a specimen, to determine the probable depth of the water adjacent to the deposits; and from the lessons furnished by a piece of limestone, for instance, to reconstitute the geological ocean in which it originated, estimating the dimensions of the sea, the force and direction of the currents and waves and of the winds that blow over it, and the depth of the water, its temperature, salinity, and density—all, in short, that we are only beginning to learn concerning our present seas.


Customs of Demerara Negroes.—The Demerara boatman, Mr. J. Rodway says, "has great powers of endurance. He can paddle for hour after hour, often against the stream, until you wonder how he bears such a strain. But when his work is done he falls asleep in almost any position. Under the burning rays of a cloudless sun which would blister your face he sprawls down in the bateau and sleeps like a dog." With his inclination to sleep during the day the negro will spend the night in gossip, dancing, or singing, and often in such a way as to be a nuisance to his neighbors. Such he is in his wakes, when fifty or a hundred people will gather in the yard, there being no room in the house, and, beginning with hymns and going on after midnight to songs and games, may wind up toward morning with a free fight. "Then there is the Cumfoo dance, one of the finest institutions in the world for producing nightmare. Two men beat drums with their hands, the one instrument producing a tum-tum and the other a rattle-rattle, almost without intermission during the whole night. At intervals of about a minute the party utters a weird cry in some African language, which startles you as you lie in bed vainly trying to sleep. As hour after hour passes your house appears to vibrate, the bed shakes, and your spine feels as if made up of loose segments." This and other dances are connected with the Obeah, the witch cult of the African. All the negroes and most of the "colored people" have an innate fear of the Obeah man, however much they may deny it to the whites; and Mr. Rodway tells of a captain of a creole cricket club who was sure his side would win a match game because a notable Obeah man had oiled their bats.


Causes of Sudden Death.—Cases of sudden death from natural causes are classified by Dr. J. Dixon Mann under the three heads of deaths which are due to the presence of a disease universally recognized as one liable to terminate with sudden fatality—when satisfactory post-mortem evidence can usually be obtained of the cause of death; those due to the presence of a disease which when fatal does not usually end life abruptly—when the post-mortem evidences are usually inferential rather than conclusive; and deaths which do not result from any ascertainable disease—when no evidence is afforded by post-mortem examination. Heart disease is responsible for about half the whole number of sudden deaths of adults. Apoplexy and other cognate brain diseases rank second to it. Some of the diseases liable to terminate thus may exist without giving rise to any symptoms. Especially is this the case with certain diseases that have a prolonged course. The diseases of the second class are quite numerous, and, though several of them are usually inhibitive of motion when fully developed, they occasionally occur in a latent form, and terminate suddenly without their presence being even suspected. In some cases, with these diseases, the issue may be determined by an overloaded stomach. In a large number of instances the victim was undergoing some exceptional form of physical exertion at the time. In most of the cases in which death suddenly takes place without any cause being revealed on post-mortem examination, it is determined by some external causal influence either acting directly on the nervous system or mediately on it by means of a very slight and apparently totally inadequate physical impact. Therefore, in relation to this group, the term "death from natural causes" includes death arising from external and possibly abnormal influences, which, however, can not be regarded as being essentially lethal. Young children are especially liable to sudden death in a number of ways that do not obtain with adults. Infants die very readily from suffocation. Convulsions due to reflex irritation are a common cause of infantile death; and, finally, sudden death may occur to young children without any ascertainable cause.


Work of the Smithsonian Institution.—Among the publications of the Smithsonian Institution mentioned by Secretary Langley in his annual report is the memoir of Lord Rayleigh and Professor Ramsay on the discovery of argon, for which achievements the authors were awarded the first Hodgkins prize of ten thousand dollars. A memoir by Prof. E. Duclaux, of Paris, describes the methods and results of numerous experiments on the chemical rays of the sun by the exposure of oxalic acid to their action, from which it appears that the chemical activity and hygienic power of the sun's rays are not related to the apparent fineness of the day. The library has grown to contain 35,912 numbers. Special mention is made of the gift of Mr. S. Paleanof, of St. Petersburg, of more than three hundred volumes, mostly of Oriental works, with some Arabic manuscripts and many rare Armenian publications. The collection of Chinese coins, etc., bequeathed by the late George B. Glover, includes 2,025 specimens of Chinese, Annamese, Siamese, Japanese, and Korean coins; amulets and bamboo tally sticks used as money; Chinese paper money; foreign coins in circulation in China; and molds for casting coins—the series dating back to b. c. 770, and being continuous in the coinage of each dynasty. The work of the Bureau of American Ethnology has been prosecuted in the study of social organizations, linguistics, and decoration, as illustrated in the Indian tribes. The International Exchange Service, instituted in 1852, is still carried on, with 28,008 correspondents on its records, of which 21,427 are foreign. The operations of the Astrophysical Observatory have consisted chiefly in experiments in the holographic analysis of the infra-red solar spectrum and the preparation of a report thereon. Information has been sought from the institution on all sorts of subjects, and has been furnished, or else the way to get it has been pointed out.


Dinner in the "Zoo."—The appetites of the twenty-five hundred animals, more or less, kept in the London Zoölogical Gardens furnish a curious field for study; and the matter of dealing with them is in some cases one of great difficulty. Only one animal—the hog—seems wholly indifferent as to the nature and quality of its food, and some species are extremely fastidious. Even the ostrich manifests a choice, and shows no relish for the nails and old iron with which it is credited with regaling itself on the African farms; and one species, the Somali ostrich, accepts only green food, refusing to touch the meat and biscuits of which the South African ostrich is very fond. The giraffe is one of the daintiest of beasts, living in nature on the leaves which it strips from trees, and in the gardens on the best clover hay, crushed oats, bran, and chaff, with fresh green tares and an occasional onion as relishes; and while it is very fond of fresh, whole apples, rejects one that has been bitten. Some animals are able to change their native tastes and acquire others, vegetarians becoming flesh eaters, and insect eaters turning to fruit and grain—as the kea, of New Zealand, which, once a strict vegetarian, has become very fond of mutton. Animals in the Zoo have to submit to more or less of this, for their native food is often unattainable. Nothing has been found on which the Australian koala will thrive, but the kangaroos and wallabies take kindly to grass and maize, and breed frequently. Unfortunately, the kangaroos are very subject to gout and corns. The polar bear is happy with horse blubber and plaice, and the crocodiles and alligators are satisfied with raw meat. The apteryx, which at home lives on worms and larvæ, feeds and prospers on imitations carved out of fillet steak.