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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/December 1898/Fragments of Science

Fragments of Science.

Tree Planting in the Arid Regions.—In planting the arid and subarid regions of the country, where no trees are growing naturally, Mr. B. E. Fernow says, in a review of the work of the Department of Forestry, different methods of cultivation from those given in the humid parts are necessary, and the plant material has to be selected with a view to a rigorous climate characterized by extreme ranges of temperature varying from -40° to +120° F. The requirements of the plants for moisture must be of the slightest, and they must be capable of responding to the demands of evaporation. At first, whatever trees will grow successfully from the start under such untoward conditions would have to be chosen, no matter what their qualities otherwise might be. The first settlers have ascertained by trials some of the species that will succeed under such conditions, but unfortunately most of them are of but small economic value, and some of them are only short-lived under the conditions in which they have to grow. A few years ago Mr. Fernow came to the conclusion that the conifers, especially the pines, would furnish more useful and otherwise serviceable material for the arid regions. Besides their superior economical value, they require less moisture than most of the deciduous trees that have been planted, and they would, if once established, persist more readily through seasons of drought and be longer lived. A small trial plantation on the sand hills of Nebraska lent countenance to this theory. It being vastly more difficult to establish the young plants in the first place than in the case of deciduous trees, much attention was given to the provision for protection of the seedlings from sun and winds; and they were planted in mixture with "nurse trees" that would furnish not too much and yet enough shade. "It can not be said that the success in using these species has so far been very encouraging; nevertheless, the failure may be charged rather to our lack of knowledge and to causes that can be overcome than to any inherent incapacity in the species." The experiments should therefore be continued.

 

"The Venerable Bede's" Chair.—In an article in a recent issue of Architecture and Building, on Ancient and Modern Furniture, by F. T. Hodgson, the following interesting account of the chair of "the Venerable Bede" occurs: "Perhaps the best-known relic, so far as furniture is concerned of this early period, is the chair of 'the Venerable Bede,' which is still preserved in the vestry of Jassova Church, Northumberland, England. This chair is distinctively an ecclesiastical one—a throne, in fact, of some dignity. It is made of oak and is four feet ten inches high. There are many engravings of it, but I reproduce from one of the best. The chair is now well on to twelve hundred years old, and if cared for as it ought to be is good for several hundred years more. There is a popular tradition concerning this chair that is worthy of notice It is said that to this ancient relic all the brides repair as soon as the marriage service is over, in order that they may seat themselves in it. This, according to the popular belief, will make them joyful mothers of children; and to omit this custom the expectant mothers would not consider the marriage ceremony complete, and in default thereof of being enthroned in 'the Venerable Bede's chair' barrenness and misery would surely follow. Like all other relics of the sort, it is subject to attacks of the sacrilegious penknives, together with the wanton depredations of relic hunters, and has been so shorn of its fair proportions that very soon there will be little of it left but its attenuated form if stricter watch is not kept over it."

 

The Physics of Smell.—The principal subject of Prof. W. E. Ayrton's vice-presidential address on physics at the British Association was the physics of smell, which was presented as a subject that had been but little studied. In testing the generally accepted idea that metals have smell, based on the fact that a smell is perceived with most of the commercial metals when handled, the author had observed that when these metals were cleaned or made outwardly pure the smell disappeared. Yet it is shown that these metals acquire smells when they are handled or abraded by friction, which are characteristic and serve to distinguish them. This may be ascribed to chemical action, but not all chemical action in which metals may take part produces smell; for when they are rubbed with soda or with sugar no smell but that of soda or of sugar is perceived; nor is the metallic smell observed when dilute nitric acid is rubbed on certain metals, though the chemical action is very marked with some. But mere breathing on certain metals, even when they have been rendered practically odorless by cleaning, produces a very distinct smell, as also does touching them with the tongue. These smells have hitherto been attributed to the metals themselves, but Professor Ayrton looks for their source in the evolution of hydrogen, which carries with it impurities, hydrocarbons, especially paraffin, and "it is probable that no metallic particles, even in the form of vapor, reach the nose or even leave the metal. While smells usually appear to be diffused with great velocity, experiments prove that when the space through which they have to pass is free from draughts their progress is very slow, and it would therefore appear that the passage of a smell is far more due to the actual motion of the air containing it than to the diffusion of the odoriferous substance through the air." The power of a smell to cling to a substance does not appear to depend on its intensity or on the ease with which it travels through a closed space. Experiments to determine whether smells could pass through glass by transpiration either revealed flaws in the glass or ended in the breaking of the very thin bulbs and gave no answer.

 

The Cordillera Region of Canada.—A length of nearly thirteen hundred miles of the great mountainous or Cordillera region of the Pacific coast is included in the western part of Canada. Most of this, Mr. George M. Dawson says, in a paper on the Physical Geography and Geology of Canada, is embraced in the province of British Columbia, where it is about four hundred miles wide between the Great Plains and the Pacific Ocean. To the north it is included in the Yukon district of the Northwest Territory till it reaches, in a less elevated and more widely spread form, the shores of the Arctic Ocean on one side and on the other passes across the one hundred and forty-first meridian of west longitude into Alaska. The orographic features of this region are very complicated in detail. No existing map yet properly represents even the principal physical outlines, and the impression gained by the traveler or explorer may well be one of confusion. There are, however, the two dominant mountain systems of the Rocky Mountains and the Coast Range. As a whole, the area of the Cordillera in Canada may be described as forest-clad, but the growth of trees is more luxuriant on the western slopes of each of the dominant mountain ranges, in correspondence with the greater precipitation occurring on these slopes. This is particularly the case in the coast region and on the seaward side of the Coast Range, where magnificent and dense forests of coniferous trees occupy almost the whole available surface. The interior plateau, however, constitutes the southern part of a notably dry belt, and includes wide stretches of open grass-covered hills and valleys, forming excellent cattle ranges. Farther north, along the same belt, similar open country appears intermittently, but the forest invades the greater part of the region. It is only toward the arctic coast, in relatively very high latitude, that the barren arctic tundra country begins, which, sweeping in wider development to the westward, occupies most of the jnterior of Alaska. With certain exceptions the farming land of British Columbia is confined to the valleys and tracts below three thousand feet, by reason of the summer frosts occurring at greater heights. There is, however, a considerable area of such land in the aggregate, with a soil generally of great fertility. In the southern valleys of the interior irrigation is necessary for the growth of crops.

 

The "Rabies" Bacillus.—Ever since the discovery of Pasteur that an attenuated virus made from the medulla or spinal cord of a dog affected by rabies was, when administered in graduated doses, a specific against the disease, bacteriologists have been eagerly seeking to isolate the rabies bacillus. A number of observers, among them Toll, Rivolta, and San Felice, have succeeded in staining a bacillus which they claimed to be that of rabies. Memno, of Rome, confirmed the observations of the preceding, and proved the virulent character of the microorganism, which he described as a blastomycete. He has quite recently succeeded in cultivating the bacillus in artificial media and producing typical rabies in dogs, rodents, and birds by inoculations. He found that the bacillus grew better in fluid than in solid media, the best being bouillon with glucose slightly acidulated with tartaric acid. The growth did not become manifest under a week, and was easily arrested by "air infection." It would thus seem that we have at last certainly established the bacterial origin of rabies.

 

The St. Kildans.—St. Kilda, the farthest out to sea of all the British Isles, is a rounded mountain with "stack rocks" and islets round it, rises twelve hundred and twenty feet in height, and contains a settlement of about seventy-five men, women, and children—almost the only representatives left on the British Islands of man in the hunting age. On one of the subsidiary islands, Boreray, is gathered the main body of the sea birds for which the island is famous; and on a third, Soa, are the diminutive descendants of Viking sheep, left by old sea rovers. Mr. R. Kearton, who has recently visited the islands for recreation among the sea birds, represents that in the little community of its people the ordinary and extraordinary operations of fife seem inverted. Sport is a serious work; sheep herding and shearing are an exciting sport. A St. Kildan qualifies for marriage by proving his courage and skill as a fowler, by standing on a dizzy precipice called Lover's Stone, and goes out bird snaring with a serious face. When he wants a sheep for the butcher, he asks his friends to a sheep hunt in the island of Soa, in which dogs and men pursue the animals from rock to rock. An offer made by a factor to supply the people with nets, so that they might catch the sheep with more humanity and less waste of life, was rejected by them. They preferred the old methods, which supplied plenty of danger and excitement. While the sheep are hunted, the cows are thoroughly.spoiled. Every day the women are seen hard at work picking dock leaves and storing them in baskets for the cows at milking time, for they will not be milked unless they are fed. The sheep on Soa Island are plucked instead of being sheared, at the time when the wool would naturally be shed, and what wool will not come off in this way is cut off with a pocket knife. When the steamer with Mr Kearton reached the island, no one came down to meet it till the whistle had been blown two or three times. "It was not etiquette to rush down like a parcel of savages," but the people "retire to tidy themselves, and then row out and call in proper form."

 

The Island of Sakhalin.—Mr. Benjamin Howard, an English visitor at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, presented before Section E of that body an interesting account of the great but little-known island of Sakhalin, more generally spelled Saghalien in our geographies. Mr. Howard, however, strongly urged the former spelling, as most correctly representing the name, which is always pronounced by the Russians in three syllables, with the accent on the first. It is now used as a penal colony by the Russian Government, and a more hopelessly remote and inaccessible spot for such a purpose can hardly be found. To it are sent the hardest cases among the Siberian prisoners; and Mr. Howard spoke of becoming accustomed, during his stay there, to meeting scarcely any human beings but murderers, except, of course, the guards and officials. The island is extremely inaccessible; there is no commerce, and neither inducement nor opportunity for vessels to touch there, while much of the coast is ice-bound for a large part of the year. Mr. Howard, who was engaged in some scientific work on the island in the service of the Government, is one of the very few foreigners who have traveled or resided there at all. He predicts for Sakhalin, however, a future of considerable importance ultimately, though only after a long period of preliminary development and exploitation as a penal colony, which stage has but lately been begun. It has forest and mining resources—among the latter, coal; the deposits are near the surface, but thus far have been very little examined. He was unable to give any data as to their geological age or actual extent; but the Government will no doubt soon make investigations. The most remarkable possibilities, however, are in the line of fisheries, the coasts swarming with fish to an extent that is scarcely credible by one who has not seen them. Mr. Howard said jocosely that he would hardly dare to relate what he had personally witnessed, in view of the usual reputation of "fish stories." The climate is of course rigorous, under the influence of cold northern currents, and markedly in contrast with that of the same latitude on the American side of the Pacific, where the Japan current carries its modifying influence as the Gulf Stream does to northern Europe. Some agriculture, however, is possible during the short summer, and the penal colonists have made fair beginnings of self-support. He referred further to a remnant of native Aino population as very interesting from the fact that they have preserved their peculiarities of life and manners, and their purity of stock, much more completely through their isolation than the Ainos of the Japanese Islands, who have been modified more or less by association with the latter people.

 

Technical and Popular Names.—In a paper criticising the multiplication of local names in geology, Prof. C. E. Keyes distinguishes between names devised with a conscientious desire to better the condition of a science by clothing the new ideas with simple words and those which are the product of a name-making mania. "The first can not be too highly commended, nor the second too deeply deplored." Every progressive science must discard the names that have served their purpose, and must be prepared to receive all of the new ones demanded. The sciences have each two phases, for each of which a terminology is demanded, in one of which the names must be technical and special, established primarily for the investigator, and in the other general, popular, simple, and free from technical appearance; but the distinction is rarely made. Those who object to the prevalence of technical names in other sciences seldom reflect that they have them in their own art. Yet if a man of science should desire to familiarize himself with the artisan's work, "he would be, after five minutes' talk with a machinist or electrician, confronted by so many unfamiliar terms—technical terms of everyday use—that he would at once cry out for greater simplicity of language." In the geological sciences the technicalities play the same part they do in the arts and in business. Every new name in geology, however, must be properly defined before it can be noticed, and its subsequent career will depend on its utility. It may be said that no greater boon to the working geologist has been devised than the plan of designating geographically geological units irrespective of exact position or age. Since its adoption a vast mass of valuable information has been obtained that was previously unthought of, and is in a shape to be always used; the other departments of geology have been much aided, and stratigraphical geology has been greatly helped.

 

The Origin of a Cnrions Habit.—The following paragraphs are taken from a recent Nature. It is well known that the kea, or mountain parrot of New Zealand, has acquired the habit of attacking sheep, and making holes by means of its sharp and powerful beak in the backs of these animals for the purpose of abstracting the kidney fat, which appears to be esteemed as a luxurious diet. It is supposed that this peculiar habit or instinct was developed by the bird getting the fat from the skins of sheep that had been slaughtered, but this solution is not very satisfactory, as there appears nothing to connect the fat on the skins of sheep with the live animals. In a note published in the Zoölogist (May 16th), Mr. F. R. Godfrey, writing from Melbourne, offers the following solution of the mystery, which seemed to him to be simple and satisfactory, and more rational than the skeepskin theory: In the hilly districts of the middle island of New Zealand there is a great abundance of a white moss, or lichen, which exactly resembles a lump of white wool, at the roots of which are found small white fatty substances, supposed by some to be the seeds of the plant, and by others to be a grub or maggot which infests it, which is the favorite food of the kea. Probably the bird, misled by this resemblance, commenced an exploration in sheep, and this proving satisfactory, originated the new habit. In a note to this suggestion the editor points out that Mr. Godfrey is in agreement with another observer—Mr. F. R. Chapman—who in describing the hills of this island says: "A very interesting raoulia, or vegetable sheep, was very plentiful on steep, rocky places. . . . It is said that the keas tear them up with their powerful beaks, and that these birds learned to eat mutton through mistaking dead sheep for masses of raoulia."

 

Changes in Plant Characters.—From experiments upon the cultural evolution of Cyclamen latifolium, W. T. Thiselton Dyer finds that, when once specific stability has been broken down in a plant, morphological changes of great variety and magnitude can be brought about in a comparatively short space of time. It appears that though sudden variations do occur, they are, as far as we know, slight as long as self-fertilization is adhered to. The striking results obtained by cultivators have been due to the patient accumulation by selection of gradual but continuous variation in any desired direction. The size which any variable organ can reach does not appear to be governed by any principle of correlation. Large flowers are not necessarily accompanied by large leaves. The general tendency of a plant varying freely under artificial conditions seems to be atavistic—or to shed adaptive modifications which have ceased to be useful, and to revert to a more generalized type, or to reproduce characters which are already present in other members of the same group. But this statement must be accepted with caution. The most remarkable phenomenon in the cultivation of the Cyclamen is the development of a plume or crest on the inner surface of each corolla segment. This shows that the plant still possesses the power to strike out a new line and to develop characters which would even be regarded as having specific value.

 

Hanging an Elephant.—One of the elephants in Barnum and Bailey's show, having repeatedly shown signs of insubordination and bad temper, it was finally decided to kill him. From a note in Nature we get the following account of his execution: After considerable discussion it was decided to strangle him. A new Manila rope was loosely wound three times around his neck, and his legs, fully stridden, were securely chained each to a post firmly driven into the ground alongside each limb. The animal was intentionally not isolated from his fellows, as it was feared that if placed by itself it would become restive and ill-tempered. The rope surrounding the beast's neck had one end secured to three strong pillars in the ground, some distance away and slightly in advance of the fore feet; and the other, which terminated in a loop, was hooked to a double series of pulleys, to the tackle of which ninety men were attached. When all was ready, the slack was gently, quietly, and without any apparent annoyance to the elephant—which kept on eating hay—taken in till the coils round its neck were just taut. The word was then given, "Walk away with the rope." Amid perfect silence the ninety men walked away, without apparently any effort. So noiselessly and easily did everything work that, unless with foreknowledge of what was going to take place, one might have been present without realizing what the march of these men meant. The elephant gave no sign of discomfort either by trunk or tail. Its fellows standing close by looked on in pachydermatous unconcern, and at the end of exactly thirty seconds it slowly collapsed and lay down as if of its own accord. There was absolutely no struggle and no motion, violent or otherwise, in any part of the body, nor the slightest indication of pain. In a few seconds more there was no response obtained by touching the eyeball. At the end of thirteen minutes after the order to "walk away" the eye had become rigid and dim. That no more humane, painless, and rapid method of taking the life of a large animal could be devised was the opinion of all the experts who witnessed the execution.