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

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | March 1900

Fragments of Science.

Longevity of Whales.—Some light was thrown, a few years ago, upon the subject of the vitality of whales by finding one of these animals in Bering Sea, in 1890, with a "toggle" harpoon head in its body bearing the mark of the American whaler Montezuma. That vessel was engaged in whaling in Bering Sea about ten years, but not later than 1854. She was afterward sold to the Government, and was sunk in Charleston Harbor during the civil war to serve as an obstruction. Hence, it is estimated, the whale must have carried the harpoon not less than thirty-six years. In connection with this fact, Mr. William H. Dall gives an account, in the National Geographic Magazine, of a discussion with Captain E. P. Herendeen, of the United States National Museum, of cases of whales that have been supposed to have made their way from Greenland waters to Bering Strait, and to have been identified by the harpoons they carried. While it is very likely that the whale really makes the passage, an uncertainty must always be allowed, for ships were often changing ownership and their tools were sold and put on board of other vessels, and harpoon irons were sometimes given or traded to Eskimos. It therefore becomes possible that the animal was struck with a second-hand iron.


Solidification of Hydrogen.—As soon as he was able to obtain liquid hydrogen in manageable quantities, in the fall of 1898, Mr. James Dewar began experiments for its solidification. The apparatus he used was like that employed in other solidification experiments, consisting of a small vacuum test tube, containing the hydrogen, placed in a larger vessel of the same kind, with excess of the hydrogen partly filling the circular space between the two tubes. No solidification was produced, and the effort was suspended for a time, while the author attacked other problems. The experiments were renewed in 1899, with the advantage of more knowledge concerning reductions of temperature brought about by reduction of pressure. A slight leak of air in the apparatus was observed, which was frozen into an air snow when it met the cold vapor of hydrogen coming off, and this leak at a particular point of pressure caused a sudden solidification of the liquid hydrogen into a mass like frozen foam. An apparatus was then arranged that could be overturned, so' that if any of the hydrogen was still liquid it would run out. None ran out, but by the aid of a strong light on the side of the apparatus opposite the eye the hydrogen was seen as a solid ice in the lower part, while the surface looked frothy. The melting point of hydrogen ice was determined at about 16° or 17° absolute (-257° or -256° C). The solid seemed to possess the properties of the non-metallic elements rather than of the metals, among which it has been usual to class hydrogen.


The Gegenschein.—Much interest prevails among astronomers at present concerning the question of the nature of the Gegenschein. This German word, which means "opposite shine," is applied to designate a small, somewhat oblong, bright spot which is sometimes seen in the sky at night, nearly opposite the point which is at the time occupied by the sun on the opposite side of the globe. It is near the ecliptic, but appears two or three degrees away from exact opposition to the sun. It seems agreed that the Gegenschein is not atmospheric, but rather meteoric, being a reflection from some collection of meteors. The problem set before astronomers is to identify the meteors. A theory that they are connected with the asteroidal zone, or mass of meteors of which the known and numbered asteroids are conspicuous examples, has, according to Professor Barnard, "much in its favor, but there are objections to the theory which can not easily be reconciled with the observed facts." Mr. J. Evershed, of Kenley, England, assumes the Gegenschein to be a tail to the earth, produced by the escape of molecules of hydrogen and helium away from the globe in a direction opposite to the sun—much as a comet's tail is formed. Other observers suppose it to be connected with the zodiacal light or band, which is regarded as a body of meteors connected with the earth and accompanying it, and is plainly visible in the western sky after sunset in the spring, rising from the place of the sun toward the zenith; and Mr. William Anderson, of Madeira, publishes a figure with a demonstration, in The Observatory, to show how its place and appearance may be accounted for on this supposition. The Gegenschein has been compared in a homely way to the radiance which may be seen around the shadows of our heads cast by the sun upon the dewy grass early on a bright summer morning.


Literature for Children.—Mr. Richard le Gallienne, in an article published in the Boston Transcript, laments the flood of rubbish that is poured out under the guise of children's books. The subject of literature for children is discussed in the Studies of the Colorado Scientific Society by Prof. E. S. Parsons, who remarks that three of the greatest classics of childhood were not written for children at all. "Pilgrim's Progress was a new type of sermon written by the tinker preacher in his prison cell at Bedford; Robinson Crusoe was a pseudo-history from the pen of one of the first great English realists; Gulliver's Travels was a political satire by the greatest of English satirists. The same thing is true of the stories of the Bible, of the Arabian Nights, of the folklore which strikes a sympathetic chord at once in the child's nature.… Child study, then, reveals the fact that the child nature is the counterpart of what is best in books—that children can appreciate literature." A friend of Professor Parsons wrote him of her daughter, nine years old, being very fond of her father's library, and "simply devoted" to the Bible and the plays of Shakespeare. Harriet Martineau, when a child, "devoured all of Shakespeare," sitting on a footstool and reading by firelight, and making shirts, with Goldsmith or Thomson or Milton where she could glance at them occasionally. Another of Professor Parsons's friends read "all of Goethe's Faust with his little thirteen-year-old girl, to her great enjoyment," and the little girl afterward read alone all of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. "Many teachers have found young children delighted with Dante." These incidents and others point to the inference that it is not necessary to go outside of the world's great literature for fit material for a child's imaginative and emotional nature. One of Mr. Le Gallienne's main conclusions is that it is very hard to guess beforehand what the child will like.


Geography and Exploration in 1899.—No great geographical discoveries were recorded during 1899, but much good work was done in exploration. Considerable interest has been taken in preparing expeditions of antarctic research, of which a Belgian expedition has returned with some important results, and Mr. Borchgrevink has begun work at Cape Adar, on the antarctic mainland. The search for Andrée has helped increase our knowledge of parts of the arctic coast. In Asia, Captain Deasy has laid down the whole of the before unknown course of the Yarkand River, and has furnished other information concerning little-known regions; and other surveys and explorations have been diligently prosecuted. About as much may be said of Africa, where "the want of adequate exploration of the mountainous regions on the borders of Cape Colony and Natal has been only too forcibly brought home" to the English. Expeditions sent out by Canadian surveys are constantly opening up new countries and producing maps of great geographical and industrial value. Mr. A. P. Low finds Labrador not quite so bleak and hopeless a country as had been generally believed. Sir Martin Conway has done some very creditable exploration in the Andes and in Tierra del Fuego, the scientific results of which are of considerable value. In Chile, Dr. Staffer and his colleagues have been exploring the wonderful fiords of the coast and the rivers that come down to them from the Andean range. Dr. Moreno has described the results of twenty-five years' exploration of the great Patagonian plains, and of the lakes and glaciers and mountains on the eastern face of the Andes. One of the most important scientific enterprises during the year, the London Times says, was the German oceanographical expedition in the Valdivia, under Professor Chum, which went south through the Atlantic to the edge of the antarctic ice, and north through the Indian Ocean to Sumatra, and home through the Red Sea.


Royal Society Medalists.—The Copley medal was conferred, at the recent anniversary meeting of the Royal Society, upon Lord Rayleigh for his splendid service to physics, his investigations, the president said in presenting the award, having increased our knowledge in almost every department of physical science, covering the experimental as well as the mathematical parts of the subject. "His researches, from the range of subjects they cover, their abundance, and their importance, have rarely been paralleled in the history of physical science." A summary account of the principal ones was given in the sketch of him published in the twenty-fifth volume of the Popular Science Monthly (October, 1884). At the same meeting of the Royal Society the Royal medals were conferred upon Prof. G. F. Fitzgerald, for his brilliant contributions to physics, and Prof. William C. Mcintosh, for his very important labors as a zoologist. Professor Fitzgerald's investigations have been in the field of radiation and electrical theory, and in a manner complementary to those of J. Clerke Maxwell. Among his works is a memoir presenting a dynamic formulation of the electric theory of light on the basis of the principle of least action, which concludes with a remark upon the advantage of "emancipating our minds from the thraldom of a material ether." Professor McIntosh was spoken of as "one of a distinguished succession of monographers of the British fauna, who, beginning with Edward Forbes, have, during the last fifty years, done work highly creditable to British zoölogy." He is author of a great monograph of the British Annelids, which is still in progress of publication by the Royal Society, and of an important contribution to the Challenger reports, and was the founder of the first marine biological station in Great Britain—the Catty Marine Laboratory at St. Andrews. The Davy medal was bestowed upon Edward Schunck for researches of very high importance in organic chemistry. These works include a remarkable series of contributions to the chemistry of the organic coloring matters, particularly those relating to the indigo plant and to the madder plant. Of late years he has studied, with distinguished success, the chemistry of chlorophyll.


Anglo-Saxon Superiority.—The question of the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race is at present interesting economists of other stocks, especially of the supposed Latin races. The fact of superiority seems-to be conceded. The problem is to account for it. A French writer, M. Dumoulins, attributes it to the superiority of Anglo-Saxon educational institutions. Signor G. Sergi, the distinguished Italian anthropologist, thinks it is a result of the mixture of ethnic elements of which the English people are made up, and he goes over the history of the colonizations which have overtaken Britain, to show how upon the first neolithic settlers of the Mediterranean stocks came a small emigration of the Asiatic Aryan or Indo-European peoples. Caesar's conquest brought in a Roman infusion with some African elements, which did not last long, but left their mark. Next the Anglo-Saxon tribes of northern Germany made the principal contribution to the formation of the English people. A portion of Scandinavian blood was added to the composition, and on top of all came the Normans. These elements, none of which were extremely discordant with the others, became thoroughly mixed in the course of time, and matured into the English people as it is. The English resemble the Romans in their methods of colonization, political tact, practical sense, persistence, religious tolerance, the magnitude of their works and the boldness of their undertakings, and in their egotism working together with the principle of social solidarity. Both readily established themselves in new colonies, carrying there the civilization of the mother country and their systems of administration. The great roads and wonderful bridges constructed by the Romans are paralleled by the great Anglo-Saxon railway systems. As the Latin language became almost universal, so the English language is diffusing itself everywhere. But Signor Sergi fails to show why, if the English have taken so much from the Romans, the Italians, their direct descendants, have lost so much of what they once had. He reserves that question, after raising it, for future consideration.


Carbonic Acid and Climate.—The great importance of the carbonic acid in the atmosphere as a factor in determining the climate of the earth has been confirmed by the researches of a considerable number of investigators. Its work appears to be that of an absorbent of the sun's radiant heat, retaining it and preventing its passing by us and leaving us in the cold temperature of space. Tyndall computes that it has in this capacity a power eighty times that of oxygen or nitrogen, while it is excelled by water vapor with ninety-two times that of those gases. Lecher and Pretner, on the other hand, believe that carbonic acid is the only agent concerned in the service. Mr. Cyrus F. Talman, Jr., in view of the fact that carbonic acid is an important factor among geological agencies, has published, in the Journal of Geology, a study of the conditions of the content of that gas in the ocean, a study that leads to the consideration of the chemistry of the ocean. It seems to be clear that with falling temperature the ocean will dissolve carbonic acid from the air. Dr. T. C. Chamberlin has shown that the amount of carbonic acid in the atmosphere at any one time, and therefore the climate of the earth at that time, depends upon the value of the ratio of the supply of the gas to its depletion. Besides the continuous supply that the atmosphere receives from the interior of the earth and from planetary space and the continuous depletion due to the formation of carbonates in place of the igneous alkali earth silicates, there are variations in the ratio of supply to depletion dependent upon the attitude of the land and the water. A large exposure of land surface is correlated with a rapid solution of calcium and magnesium carbonates, which, becoming bicarbonates, represent a loss of carbonic acid to the atmosphere. On the other hand, the formation of the normal carbonate by lime-secreting animals causes a direct liberation of the second equivalent of the bicarbonate. Therefore extensive oceans and abundant marine life are correlated with warm climate. After a somewhat more minute discussion of the action, Mr. Talman concludes that the ocean very greatly intensifies the secular variation of the earth's temperature, although acting as a moderating agent in the minor cycles.


Pearl Mussels.—In his report to the United States Fish Commission on the Pearly Fresh-Water Mussels of the United States, Mr. Charles T. Simpson speaks of the great variety of conditions under which they live. They show great capacity for adaptation. Most of them are found in shallow water, but certain forms live at considerable depths. Some bury themselves among the fibrous roots of trees, some in the muddy, sandy banks just below the surface of the water, and some, as in Lake Tiberias (Palestine) and Lake Tanganyika (Africa), under six hundred or more feet of water. Ordinarily they die in a very short time if taken out of the water—in from twenty-four to forty-eight hours, as a rule—and they generally die in a few hours when exposed to the sun. But many species, thus tender in the open air, will lie buried in dried mud for a long time. In June, 1850, a living pond mussel was sent to London, from Australia, which had been out of water for more than a year. Along a small stream near Braidentown, Fla., which runs only during about three months in summer and is dry the rest of the year, thousands of a large colony of Unio obesus may be found just buried in the sandy banks or among the flags and rushes of the bottom, where there is very little moisture, all in healthy condition. Mr. Simpson has laid these mussels in the sun for months without killing them. The specimens which live in perennial water seem to die soon if removed from it, while those which inhabit streams or ponds that often dry up will live a long time out of water. Some species in rocky streams live in the crevices of the rocks. In the Big Vermilion River, in La Salle County, Illinois, a swift, rocky stream, the author has found living mussels that had been so washed about that nearly all the epidermis was destroyed. The shells in such streams are usually heavier than those in more quiet water.