Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/April 1900/Fragments of Science

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | April 1900

Fragments of Science.

Religious Suicides.—Suicides from religious fanaticism, which are still prescribed by some sects, are compared, as having a common origin, with propitiatory or expiatory human sacrifices, by Herr Lasch, in an article of which we find a review in the Rivista Italiana di Sociologia. Voluntary sacrifices, which abound in the history of ancient peoples, had nearly always in view the removal of perils or the cessation of public calamities by appeasing the anger of the divinity through the offering of a human victim. Thus Macaria, the daughter of Hercules, at Athens during the Peloponnesian war, and Codrus and the Athenian youth Cratinus voluntarily offered their lives to aid their country by the sacrifice. The consul Decius gave himself up to assure victory to his legions, and Adrian's favorite Antinous to save his imperial protector. Spontaneous offerings of human victims to appease offended divinities are mentioned in the traditions of the ancient Germans, and it was usually their chief or king who suffered for the good of the people. Offerings of this sort are far from infrequent among barbarous and half-civilized peoples. Among some tribes in China a man is sacrificed every year for the public welfare. Such voluntary renunciations of life to acquire merit with the divinity, to gain favors, to atone for sins, and fulfill vows are very common in India, particularly where Brahamanism is most influential. Special methods were pointed out in the Hindu laws for performing such sacrifices as would be sinful for a Brahman, but not for a Sutra, who, before abandoning life, should make gifts to the Brahmans. A favorite method was to drown one's self in the Ganges, and particular spots in the river were designated for this act. The sacred books mention five methods of performing sacrifice to assure a better fortune in the next life: Starving to death, being burned alive, burial in snow, being eaten by a crocodile, and cutting the throat or being drowned at a particular spot in the Ganges. In fulfillment of vows, sons would sacrifice themselves for their mothers by jumping from a rock. To keep up the courage of the victim, the Sivaitic rituals promised many beatitudes to him who courageously met death for his sins, and threatened eternal punishment to one who performed the sacrifice in a base manner. And when the suicide had been decided upon they allowed no retreat or repentance, but forced its consummation. A special apparatus for suicide formerly existed in some of the villages in central India, consisting of a guillotine which the victim himself set in action. Casting one's self under the wheels of the car of Juggernaut was another method of religious suicide. Some philosophical schools prescribed subjection of the body to various pains for the purification of the soul; and the books of Manu, which also impose the destruction of human sensibility, have contributed much to preserve this idea in India and spread abroad, especially in the Malay Archipelago, the usage of voluntary sacrifice to the divinity. The aborigines of the Canary Islands have employed voluntary sacrifices on the coming of an epidemic, and the ancient Mexicans and Peruvians observed them in honor of the divinity.


"Manuring with Brains."—"New Soil Science" is the name Mr. D. Young gives, in the Nineteenth Century, to the results of the studies of soil bacteriology prosecuted by Mr. John Hunter and Professor MeAlpine on Lord Roseberry's estate of Dalmeny, and "manuring with brains" to the application of them. Attention has been called to the value of the bacteria in the soil as nitrifying and fertilizing elements by the experiments of Sir John Bennnet Lawes and Sir Joseph Henry Gilbert at Rothamsted, and more forcibly by experiments coming after them but suggested by them. It had also been found that caustic lime used upon the soil is liable to destroy the nitrifying and other advantageous organisms, while carbonate of lime is surely useful, and a due proportion of lime compounds is essential to the best discharge of their functions. The discovory that the bacteria of the root nodules of leguminous plants possess the power of absorbing the free nitrogen of the atmosphere and rendering it available for the use of the plant was made by Messrs. Hunter and McAlpine, according to Mr. Young, and was taught by them to their students several years before Hellriegel, to whom it is usually ascribed, fell upon it. They found that several well-defined sets of bacteria were concerned in the work of nitrification, and isolated and cultivated the nitrous germ, but could accomplish nothing with the nitric germ till they used old mortar or some lime dressing with it. They also found that lime compounds in the surface soil served a further important use by preventing the soluble silicates from being taken up by the roots of the plant, the lime taking up those salts and forming insoluble silicates which were retained in the soil and did not diffuse into the plant. So a non-silicated stem, or a cellulose stem, was formed, which would bend before the wind without breaking, while the non-silicated straw was much superior in value to the silicated straw. Messrs. Hunter and McAlpine denied that silica in the plant gave strength and solidity to the stem, and pointed out that it rather, like glass, made the straw brittle. They found out, further, that large quantities of carbonic acid were produced in the soil through the operation of the ferments, and found an outlet through the subsoil drains. They made other discoveries which threatened to render it necessary to revise the whole fabric of agricultural science, and were called to account by the institutions in which they were teachers for their heresies. They maintained their position till the opportunity came to them to make tests of their theories on Lord Rosebery's Dalmeny farm. Among the results of the Dalmeny experiments are proof of the value of a dressing of ground lime in proportions not large enough to kill the bacteria, emphasis of the value of potash for every crop, and the discovery of a remedial treatment for the finger-and-toe pest in turnips. "When these experiments were commenced, ground lime for agricultural purposes had never been heard of, whereas now there are at least six lime works where extensive grinding plants are kept hard at work to supply the ever-increasing demand for that substance. Since the principles for the new soil science have been put in successful practice at Dalmeny the scientific authorities, who at first had branded these principles as absurd heresies, have changed their tune," and now the chemical advisor of the Highland Society has declared that he accepts the new doctrines.


Plague Antitoxin.—In justifying his belief in the efficacy of the inoculation treatment against the plague, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, said, in a recent address at Poonah: "If I find, as I do find, out of one hundred plague seizures among uninoculated persons, the average number who die is somewhere about seventy to eighty per cent, while, in a corresponding number of seizures among inoculated persons, the proportions are entirely reversed and seventy to eighty per cent, if not more, are saved—and these calculations have been furnished from more than one responsible quarter—I say figures of that kind can not fail to carry conviction; and I altogether fail to see how, in the face of them, it is possible for any one to argue that inoculation is not a wise and necessary precaution." He had been personally visiting the plague hospitals and camps about the city, and had already supported his advocacy of this treatment by having himself and his party inoculated at Simla with the plague antitoxin.


Cultivation of India Rubber.—An article in the Bulletin of the Bureau of American Republics represents that there are lands in Mexico and Central America equally adapted to the cultivation of the India-rubber tree with the Brazilian plantations, and having, in addition, a salubrious climate. Formerly dependence for the supply of India rubber was placed in the product of wild trees, but with the increase in the uses for it, and the consequent rise in prices, capital is being invested in this industry, and its profitable cultivation is being largely engaged in. The trees do not flourish at an elevation exceeding five hundred feet above sea level, and low land, moist but not swampy, is the best. Land suitable for planting could be bought for twenty-five cents an acre in large tracts, but it now brings from two dollars to five dollars Mexican. These lands can be used for other crops while the trees are growing up, and thus made partly to repay the cost of starting the plantation. So the expense of clearing the land preparatory to planting it is largely met, if facilities for transplantation are at hand, by the sale of the dyewoods, sandalwood, satinwood, ebony, and mahogany that are cut off. The land should be chosen along the banks of streams, where the soil is rich, deep, and loamy, and the presence of wild rubber trees is a sure indication of its suitability. These wild trees should be left standing, and young seedlings should be kept and transplanted into their proper places. The densest plantation compatible with good results is fifteen feet apart, giving about one hundred and ninety-three trees to the acre. Once in the ground, the tree needs no attention or cultivation beyond keeping down the undergrowth, which can be effected by the aid of a side crop. The tree propagates itself by the seeds or nuts, which drop in May and June. By the sixth or seventh year the grove will be in bearing, and thereafter should yield from three to five pounds of India rubber per tree.


The New York Botanical Garden's Museum.—The museum building of the New York Botanical Garden is substantially completed, and most of the works are in an advanced state of forwardness. The museum cases (for public inspection) and the herbarium cases (for students) are in position, and the herbarium cases are filled. Among the recent gifts of value to the institution are the miscellaneous collection of John J. Crooke, made about thirty years ago and containing about twenty thousand specimens, among which are a set of the plants obtained by the United States Pacific Exploring Expedition of about 1850; the collection of between twenty and thirty thousand specimens made by Dr. F. M. Hexamer in Switzerland and the United States; a collection of seven or eight thousand numbers, made by Mr. and Mrs. A. A. Heller, representing between twelve and thirteen hundred species, some of which are new to science; and specimens of crude drugs, for the Economic Museum, presented by Parke, Davis & Co. A permanent microscopic exhibition is to be established by Mr. William E. Dodge, at his own expense. It will be furnished with at least twenty-five microscopes, and with specimens carefully prepared and inclosed, to secure them from injury. A set of more than two hundred volumes on botany and horticulture, which formed a part of the library of Dr. David Hosack, founder of the first botanical garden in New York, has been presented by the New York Academy of Medicine, which received it from the New York Hospital.


Action of Sea Water on Cements.—As the result of examinations of many masonry structures immersed in sea water. Dr. Wilhelm Michaelis has found that Portland cement does not resist the chemical action of such water so well as do Roman cement and the hydraulic cements. The soluble sulphates in the sea water appear to enter into a substitution combination with the lime which exists in the cement in a free state or is liberated in the hardening, and it is converted into a sulphate, while disintegration ensues. In Roman cement the lime exists in combination, and there is no inclination toward the formation of a sulphate, and hydraulic limes resemble Roman cement in physical qualities. Dr. Michaelis suggests that hydraulic cementing materials containing more lime than is required for the formation of stable hydro-silicate and aluminate may be made suitable for submarine work by an admixture of trass or puzzolana, whereby the cementing strength of the mass will be greatly increased, and it will be enabled to withstand the disintegrating action of the sea water.


Stories of Amazonian Pygmies.—Dr. D. G. Brinton subjected the stories of the existence of pygmy tribes on the upper tributaries of the Amazon to a careful examination, and came to the conclusion that the facts did not show anything more than that there are undersized tribes in that part of South America, with occasional individual examples of dwarfs, such as occur in all communities. It is still a question, he observed, "whether the rumor of a pygmy people somewhere in the tropical forests is not to be classed with the stories which threw a strange glamour about those inaccessible regions in the early days of the discovery. There were many of these, for I am speaking of the part of the map where was located the El Dorado, the golden city of Manoa, the home of the warlike Amazons; where dwelt the men with tails and the mysterious Oyacoulets, warriors with white skin, blue eyes, and long, blond beards. All have vanished from history but the pygmies, and their turn will probably soon come."


Relief and Pension Funds of Railroad Men.—In instituting a pension fund for the men in its employ the Pennsylvania Railroad established, in addition and supplementary to the relief fund of which they enjoy the privilege, a special fund for those who are retired or superannuated, which is adjusted according to their length of service and the pay they have been receiving. The relief fund affords every man employed an opportunity to provide for himself in case of sickness or disability. It is co-operative, and is supported jointly by the employed men, its members, and the company, the expenses of operation and the deficiencies in it being met by the company. The additional pension is the company's own undertaking. Besides the manifestly humane purpose of this arrangement—to care for the present and future interests of its men—it promises to work to increase and improve the effectiveness of the company's service. Its tendency will be to give the men greater heart in their work, and to cause them to identify themselves more fully with it. Decent provision being made for the retirement of old hands, the service can be kept manned by a younger and more robust class. The new fund will effect the entire force on the lines of the Pennsylvania system east of Pittsburg and Erie, extending over a trackage of more than forty-one hundred miles.


The Broom as a Spreader of Disease.—Dust being now generally recognized as one of the most efficient vehicles of the germs of disease, Dr. Max Girsdansky finds the broom to be one of the most active agents in sending them into air, where it is diffused by whatever breezes may be blowing there. The housewife digs the dust out of her carpets and stirs it out of the quiet corners where it has accumulated, wearing an old dress and covering her head while she leaves her lungs exposed, then shakes her rugs in the yard, and the street sweeper transfers the dust he has charge of from the pavement to the atmosphere, where we can breathe our fill of consumption from day to day. Therefore, the author holds, the broom, "far from serving any hygienic purpose, is the cause of the maintenance of organic dust in the atmosphere of the large cities of the world, and as such is the most important cause of the existence and spread of tuberculosis." Further, the carpet is pronounced "an unhygienic article, serving as a fine breeding ground for vegetable parasites, necessitating the use of the broom and the duster, and thereby becoming a reason for the existence of organic dust." As the only proper and safe way of procuring the cleanliness of the floors and streets of our large cities, Dr. Girsdansky advises the free use of water in the shape of showers, or with sprinkling wagons, hoes, mops, etc., and that all floors and floor coverings of the house and the street be so constructed as to facilitate the free use of water in these ways.


Alkali Soils in Montana.—Mr. F. W. Traphagen, of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, ascribes the origin of the alkali soil in the arid regions to the failure of the elements to remove the soda salts set free on the disintegration of the rocks, which in humid regions are taken up and washed away by the rains. The soluble salts are dissolved by the water that falls on the surface, and are carried down when it soaks through the ground, to form an element in the ground water. They return thence to the soil when water is brought up by capillary action to supply the place of that lost by surface evaporation, and accumulate there. Then, as the water evaporates they are left on the surface, forming, when in sufficient quantity, the white crusts seen in badly alkalied places. The most effective remedy for alkali might probably be found in underdrainage, which would prevent the ground water rising to the top, and would carry off the salts. This being at present impracticable on the large scale that would be required, such expedients as surface flooding and such cultivation of crops as would tend to check evaporation are suggested. The pernicious effects of "black alkali" or sodium carbonate are seen when it forms as much as about one tenth of one per cent of the soil, in the corrosion and solution of vegetable matter—the stems of plants—exposed to it. It also dissolves the humus or vegetable mold, forming dark-colored solutions and depositing a black residue upon the evaporation of the water—whence its name—and it destroys the tillability of many soils. The "white alkali" or sodium sulphate can be borne in much larger proportions in the soil, and promotes the best crops just before it completely destroys them. The author remarks that the foundations of a number of buildings in Billings, Montana, are gradually becoming insecure because of the disintegration of the rock, due to the absorption of alkali salts, followed by the evaporation of the water and the deposit of salts within the pores of the rock. As the process continues, the rock particles are forced apart.


Future of the New York Canals.—The Committee on Canals of New York State recommend decidedly in their report to the Governor that those highways should not be abandoned but maintained, and the principal ones enlarged, while the others should be kept up as navigable feeders. Of two projects for enlarging the Erie Canal, that undertaken in 1895, with modifications to be executed at a cost of $21,161,645, and a larger one to cost $58,894,68, the committee prefer the larger one, because it will permanently secure the commercial supremacy of New York, while the other is "at best only a temporary makeshift." An important principle emphasized in the report is that the efficiency of the canals depends upon their management as well as upon their physical size. Therefore a policy should be followed that will encourage transportation companies to seek the use of them; mechanical means of traction should be employed, and mechanical power should be substituted for hand power in certain operations; the force engaged upon them should be organized on a more permanent basis of fitness, so as to furnish an attractive career to graduates of scientific institutions; and efficient guards should be thrown over the expenditure of money "so as to make impossible a repetition of the unfortunate results of the $9,000,000 appropriation."


Floating Stones.—While engaged in scientific research in southwest Patagonia, Mr. Erland Nordenskiold observed a considerable number of small fragments of slate floating upon the surface, packed together in larger or smaller clusters. The surface of the stones was dry, and they sank immediately when it became wet. Their specific gravity was 2.71, that of the water being 1.0049. The fragments contained no air cavities perceptible to the naked eye, but small, gaseous bubbles could be seen attached to their under surfaces, and stones on the very fringe of the beach which were just beginning to float were observed to be lightened by gaseous bubbles. The author was not able to investigate the phenomenon more closely, but believes that besides the visible bubbles they were surrounded by an envelope of gas, supported by an insignificant coating of algæ, by which they are enveloped. The greasy surface of the mineral also prevented the water from adhering to them, and caused them to be surrounded with a concave meniscus, which contributed much to their floating.


The "Periodicity of War."—The doctrine of "the periodicity of war" was presented at the Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration in May–June, 1899, by General Alfred C. Barnes, with the introductory remark that "no one deprecates war more than the soldier who serves from a sense of duty." The speaker said that "with all our privileges, and in spite of the elevated spirit that undeniably prevails among us, the original savage lurks in the hearts of men here as elsewhere." In two hundred and twenty-five years we have had ten principal wars—five during the colonial period and five since our independence was undertaken. The average interval between wars has been about twenty years—"an extremely interesting periodicity, as it brings into the arena a new race of fighting young men. So it seems that for each fresh generation of our youth the temple gates of Janus have to be opened, that the furies there confined may rush forth and devastate the earth. It looks almost like the operation of a natural law." General Barnes's theory of the origin of the war that the United States is still engaged in is the simple one that we were "spoiling for a fight."


Expert Opinions respecting Food Preservatives.—At a recent hearing before an English Official Committee on Preservatives and Coloring Matters in Food, the representative of an eminent firm of preservers said that preservatives were not very generally used with fruits and jams. His firm regarded them as quite unnecessary, but he would not say they ought to be prohibited if used in moderate quantity. Besides coloring matter in vegetables, the only article used by his firm for coloring was an extract of cochineal. Mr. John Tubb Thomas, a medical officer, told of children who were injured by milk containing boracic acid, and said that in his experiments upon himself about fifteen grains of that substance a day had upset his digestive organs and produced sickness, with diarrhœa and headache. The use of the acid, he said, should certainly be prohibited in new milk, which was so largely the food of invalids and infants. Dr. W. H. Corfield said he had found salicylic acid in the lighter wines and beers. It was a slightly acrid, irritating substance, which was used externally for the removal of corns and warts, and was a most undesirable article to put in food. Mr. Walter Collingwood Williams, a public analyst, had found salicylic acid in a number of temperance, non-alcoholic drinks. Dr. Kaye, a medical officer of health, showed that the number of infant deaths was increasing, while the general death rate was decreasing, and attributed the fact, partly at least, to the growing and excessive use of preservatives.


Pawnshops in Germany.—Between half a dozen and a dozen of the state pawnshops which were common in Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries still exist. The United States vice-consul at Cologne has given a considerable list of municipal pawnshops in the more important cities of all parts of Germany. On the whole, the number of these institutions is larger in Germany than in France, but smaller than in Belgium, Holland, and Italy. The business of pawnshops appears, at least more recently, to depend less upon general economic than on special, local causes. The German law has usually required private persons doing a pawnbroking business to take out special licenses, and has exercised a more or less strict supervision over them. The supervision practically lacked efficiency, and more stringent regulations were imposed by a statute enacted in 1879, which is now the basis of the existing law of the German Empire. Under this law license is refused to persons who are unfitted for the business, and is not issued at any rate unless a necessity is shown for the institution. The imperial law is supplemented by special laws of the various German states.


Animals of the Ocean Depths.—While plant life in the ocean is limited to shallow waters. Sir John Murray says fishes and members of all the invertebrate groups are distributed over the floor of the ocean at all depths. The majority of these deep-sea animals live by eating the mud, clay, or ooze, or by catching the minute particles of organic matter which fall from the surface. It is probably not far from the truth to say that three fourths of the deposits now covering the floor of the ocean have passed through the alimentary canals of marine animals. These mud-eating species, many of which are of gigantic size when compared with their allies living in the shallow coastal waters, become in turn the prey of numerous rapacious animals armed with peculiar prehensile and tactile organs. Many deep-sea animals present archaic characters; still, the deep sea can not be said to contain more remnants of fauna which flourished in remote geological periods than the shallow and fresh waters of the continents.


The Site of Ophir.—Dr. Carl Peters, an African explorer recently returned to London, believes that he has found the Ophir whence King Solomon's gold was brought, in the country between the Zambesi and the Pungwa Rivers, in Portuguese Africa and eastern Mashonaland. Many rivers, some quite extensive, of undetermined origin, and traces of ancient mining enterprises, are found in the region, and gold is still washed there. One site is Fura, on the Muira River, about fifteen miles south of the Zambesi. The name Fura is said to be a native corruption of the word Afur, by which the Arabs of the sixteenth century called the district, and that to be the Saharan or south Arabian form of the Hebrew Ophir. The natives are unlike the ordinary Africans, and have a distinctly Jewish type of face. A chief informed Dr. Peters concerning the position of some ancient workings, and, following his directions, the explorer found ruins "of an undoubtedly Semitic type." Dr. Peters's hypotheses and evidences must be accepted for what they are worth. Other explorers have found Ophir at various points in Africa and Arabia, and even in India and elsewhere, and have been as satisfied and as sure as he with their identifications.