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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/November 1899/Fragments of Science

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | November 1899

Fragments of Science.

The Dover Meeting of the British Association.—While the attendance on the meeting of the British Association at Dover was not large—the whole number of members being 1,403, of whom 127 were ladies—the occasion was in other respects eventful and one of marked interest. The papers read were, as a rule, of excellent quality, and the interchange of visits with the French Association was a novel feature that might bear many repetitions. The president, Sir Michael Foster, presented, in his inaugural address, a picture of the state of science one hundred years ago, illustrating it by portraying the conditions to which a body like the association meeting then at Dover would have found itself subject, and suggesting the topics it would have discussed. The period referred to was, however, that of the beginning of the present progress, and, after remarking on what had been accomplished in the interval, the speaker drew a very hopeful foreview for the future. Besides the intellectual triumphs of science, its strengthening discipline, its relation to politics, and the "international brotherhood of science" were brought under notice in the address. In his address as president of the Physical Section, Prof. J. H. Poynting showed how physicists are tending toward a general agreement as to the nature of the laws in which they embody their discoveries, of the explanations they give, and of the hypotheses they make, and, having considered what the form and terms of this agreement should be, passed to a discussion of the limitations of physical science. The subject of Dr. Horace T. Brown's Chemical Section address was The Assimilation of Carbon by the Higher Plants. Sir William H. White, president of the Section of Mechanical Science, spoke on Steam Navigation at High Speeds. President Adam Sedgwick addressed the Zoölogical Section on Variation and some Phenomena connected with Reproduction and Sex; Sir John Murray, the Geographical Section on The Ocean Floor; and Mr. J. N. Langley, the Physiological Section on the general relations of the motor nerves to the several tissues of the body, especially of those which run to tissues over which we have little or no control. The president of the Anthropological Section, Mr. C. H. Read, of the British Museum, spoke of the preservation and proper exploration of the prehistoric antiquities of the country, and offered a plan for increasing the amount of work done in anthropological investigation by the use of Government aid. A peculiar distinction attaches to this meeting through its reception and entertainment of the French Association, and the subsequent return of the courtesy by the latter body at Boulogne. About three hundred of the French Associationists, among whom were many ladies, came over, on the Saturday of the meeting, under the lead of their president, M. Brouardel, and accompanied by a number of men of science from Belgium. They were met at the pier by the officers of the British Association, and were escorted to the place of meeting and to the sectional meetings toward which their several tastes directed them. The geological address of Sir Archibald Geikie on Geological Time had been appointed for this day out of courtesy to the French geologists, and in order that they might have an opportunity of hearing one of the great lights of British science. Among the listeners who sat upon the platform were M. Gosselet, president of the French Geological Society; M. Kemna, president of the Belgian Geological Society; and M. Renard, of Ghent. Public evening lectures were delivered on the Centenary of the Electric Current, by Prof. J. A. Fleming, and (in French) on Nervous Vibration, by Prof. Charles Richet. Sir William Turner was appointed president for the Bradford meeting of the association (1900). The visit of the French Association was returned on September 22d, when the president, officers, and about three hundred members went to Boulogne. They were welcomed by the mayor of the city, the prefect of the department, and a representative of the French Government; were feasted by the municipality of Boulogne; were entertained by the members of the French Association; and special commemorative medals were presented by the French Association to the two presidents. The British visitors also witnessed the inauguration of a tablet in memory of Dr. Duchesne, and of a plaque commemorative of Thomas Campbell, the poet, who died in Boulogne.


Artificial India Rubber.—A recent issue of the Kew Gardens Bulletin contains an interesting article on Dr. Tilden's artificial production of India rubber. India rubber, or caoutchouc, is chemically a hydrocarbon, but its molecular constitution is unknown. When decomposed by heat it is broken up into simpler hydrocarbons, among which is a substance called isoprene, a volatile liquid boiling at about 36° C. Its molecular formula is C5H8. Dr. Tilden obtained this same substance (isoprene) from oil of turpentine and other terpenes by the action of moderate heat, and then by treating the isoprene with strong acids succeeded, by means of a very slow reaction, in converting a small portion of it into a tough elastic solid, which seems to be identical in properties with true India rubber. This artificial rubber, like the natural, seems to consist of two substances, one of which is more soluble in benzene and carbon bisulphide than the other. It unites with sulphur in the same way as ordinary rubber, forming a tough, elastic compound. In a recent letter Professor Tilden says: "As you may imagine, I have tried everything I can think of as likely to promote this change, but without success. The polymerization proceeds very slowly, occupying, according to my experience, several years, and all attempts to hurry it result in the production not of rubber, but of 'colophene,' a thick, sticky oil quite useless for all purposes to which rubber is applied."


Dangers of High Altitudes for Elderly People.—"The public, and sometimes the inexperienced physician—inexperienced not in general therapeutics but in the physiological effects of altitude on a weak heart," says Dr. Findlater Zangger in the Lancet, "make light of a danger they can not understand. But if an altitude of from four thousand to five thousand feet above the sea level puts a certain amount of strain on a normal heart and by a rise of the blood-pressure indirectly also on the small peripheral arteries, must not this action be multiplied in the case of a heart suffering from even an early stage of myocarditis or in the case of arteries with thickened or even calcified walls? It is especially the rapidity of the change from one altitude to another, with differences of from three thousand to four thousand feet, which must be considered. There is a call made on the contractibility of the small arteries on the one hand, and on the amount of muscular force of the heart on the other hand, and if the structures in question can not respond to this call, rupture of an artery or dilatation of the heart may ensue. In the case of a normal condition of the circulatory organs little harm is done beyond some transient discomfort, such as dizziness, buzzing in the ears, palpitation, general malaise, and this often only in the case of people totally unaccustomed to high altitudes. For such it is desirable to take the high altitude by degrees in two or three stages, say first stage 1,500 feet, second stage from 2,500 to 3,000 feet, and third stage from 4,000 to 6,000 feet, with a stay of one or two days at the intermediate places. The stay at the health resort will be shortened, it is true, but the patient will derive more benefit. On the return journey one short stay at one intermediate place will suffice. Even a fairly strong heart will not stand an overstrain in the first days spent at a high altitude. A Dutch lady, about forty years of age, who had spent a lifetime in the lowlands, came directly up to Adelboden (altitude, 4,600 feet). After two days she went on an excursion with a party up to an Alp 7,000 feet high, making the ascent quite slowly in four hours. Sudden heart syncope ensued, which lasted the best part of an hour, though I chanced to be near and could give assistance, which was urgently needed. The patient recovered, but derived no benefit from a fortnight's stay, and had to return to the low ground the worse for her trip and her inconsiderate enterprise. Rapid ascents to a high altitude are very injurious to patients with arterio-sclerosis, and the mountain railways up to seven thousand and ten thousand feet are positively dangerous to an unsuspecting public, for many persons between the ages of fifty-five and seventy years consider themselves to be hale and healthy, and are quite unconscious of having advanced arterio-sclerosis and perchance contracted kidney. An American gentleman, aged fifty-eight years, was under my care for slight symptoms of angina pectoris, pointing to sclerosis of the coronary arteries. A two-months' course of treatment at Zurich with massage, baths, and proper exercise and diet did away with all the symptoms. I saw him by chance some months later. 'My son is going to St. Moritz (six thousand feet) for the summer,' said he; 'may I go with him?' 'Most certainly not,' was my answer. The patient then consulted a professor, who allowed him to go. Circumstances, however, took him for the summer to Sachseln, which is situated at an altitude of only two thousand feet, and he spent a good summer. But he must needs go up the Pilatus by rail (seven thousand feet), relying on the professor's permission, and the result was disastrous, for he almost died from a violent attack of angina pectoris on the night of his return from the Pilatus, and vowed on his return to Zurich to keep under three thousand feet in future. I may here mention that bad results in the shape of heart collapse, angina pectoris, cardiac asthma, and last, not least, apoplexy, often occur only on the return to the lowlands."


The Parliamentary Amenities Committee.—Under the above rather misleading title there was formed last year, in the English Parliament, a committee for the purpose of promoting concerted action in the preservation and protection of landmarks of general public interest, historic buildings, famous battlefields, and portions of landscape of unusual scenic beauty or geological conformation, and also for the protection from entire extinction of the various animals and even plants which the spread of civilization is gradually pushing to the wall. In reality, it is an official society for the preservation of those things among the works of past man and Nature which, owing to their lack of direct money value, are in danger of destruction in this intensely commercial age. Despite the comparative newness of the American civilization, there are already many relics belonging to the history of our republic whose preservation is very desirable, as well as very doubtful, if some such public-spirited committee does not take the matter in hand; and, as regards the remains of the original Americans, in which the country abounds, the necessity is still more immediate. The official care of Nature's own curiosities is equally needed, as witness the way in which the Hudson River palisades are being mutilated, and the constant raids upon our city parks for speedways, parade grounds, etc. The great value of a parliamentary or congressional committee of this sort lies in the fact that its opinions are not only based upon expert knowledge, but that they can be to an extent enforced; whereas such a body of men with no official position may go on making suggestions and protesting, as have numerous such bodies for years, without producing any practical results. The matter is, with us perhaps, one of more importance to future generations; but as all Nature seems ordered primarily with reference to the future welfare of the race, rather than for the comfort of its present members, the necessity for such an official body, whose specific business should be to look after the preservation of objects of historical interest to the succeeding centuries, ought to be inculcated in us as a part of the general evolutionary scheme.


Physical Measurements of Asylum Children.—Dr. Ales Hrdlicka has published an account of anthropological investigations and measurements which he has made upon one thousand white and colored children in the New York Juvenile Asylum and one hundred colored children in the Colored Orphan Asylum, for information about the physical state of the children who are admitted and kept in juvenile asylums, and particularly to learn whether there is anything physically abnormal about them. Some abnormality in the social or moral condition of such children being assumed, if they are also physically inferior to other children, they would have to be considered generally handicapped in the struggle for life; but if they do not differ greatly in strength and constitution from the average ordinary children, then their state would be much more hopeful. Among general facts concerning the condition of the children in the Juvenile Asylum, Dr. Hrdlicka learned that when admitted to the institution they are almost always in some way morally and physically inferior to healthy children from good social classes at large—the result, usually, of neglect or improper nutrition or both. Within a month, or even a week, decided changes for the better are observed, and after their admission the individuals of the same sex and age seem gradually, while preserving the fundamental differences of their nature, to show less of their former diversity and grow more alike. In learning, the newcomers are more or less retarded when put into the school, but in a great majority of cases they begin to acquire rapidly, and the child usually reaches the average standing of the class. Inveterate backwardness in learning is rare. Physically, about one seventh of all the inmates of the asylum were without a blemish on their bodies—a proportion which will not seem small to persons well versed in analyses of the kind. The differences in the physical standing of the boys and the girls were not so great or so general as to permit building a hypothesis upon them, though the girls came out a little the better. The colored boys seemed to be physically somewhat inferior to the white ones, but the number of them was not large enough to justify a conclusion. Of the children not found perfect, two hundred presented only a single abnormality, and this usually so small as hardly to justify excluding them from the class of perfect. Regarding as decidedly abnormal only those in whom one half the parts of the body showed defects, the number was eighty-seven. "Should we, for the sake of illustration, express the physical condition of the children by such terms as fine, medium, and bad, the fine and bad would embrace in all 192 individuals, while 808 would remain as medium." All the classes of abnormalities—congenital, pathological, and acquired—seemed more numerous in the boys than in the girls. The colored children showed fewer inborn abnormalities than the white, but more pathological and acquired. No child was found who could be termed a thorough physical degenerate, and the author concludes that the majority of the class of children dealt with are physically fairly average individuals.


Busy Birds.—A close observation of a day's work of busy activity, of a day's work of the chipping sparrow hunting and catching insects to feed its young, is recorded by Clarence M. Weed in a Bulletin of the New Hampshire College Agricultural Experiment Station. Mr. Weed began his watch before full daylight in the morning, ten minutes before the bird got off from its nest, and continued it till after dark. During the busy day Mr. Weed says, in his summary, the parent birds made almost two hundred visits to the nest, bringing food nearly every time, though some of the trips seem to have been made to furnish grit for the grinding of the food. There was no long interval when they were not at work, the longest period between visits being twenty-seven minutes. Soft-bodied caterpillars were the most abundant elements of the food, but crickets and crane flies were also seen, and doubtless a great variety of insects were taken, but precise determination of the quality of most of the food brought was of course impossible. The observations were undertaken especially to learn the regularity of the feeding habits of the adult birds. The chipping sparrow is one of the most abundant and familiar of our birds. It seeks its nesting site in the vicinity of houses, and spends most of its time searching for insects in grass lands or cultivated fields and gardens. In New England two broods are usually reared each season. That the young keep the parents busy catching insects and related creatures for their food is shown by the minute record which the author publishes in his paper. The bird deserves all the protection and encouragement that can be given it.


Park-making among the Sand Dunes.—For the creation of Golden Gate Park the park-makers of San Francisco had a series of sand hills, "hills on hills, all of sand-dune formation." The city obtained a strip of land lying between the bay and the ocean, yet close enough to the center of population to be cheaply and easily reached from all parts of the town. Work was begun in 1869, and has been prosecuted steadily since, with increasing appropriations, and the results are a credit to the city. Golden Gate Park, Mr. Frank H. Lamb says in his account of it in The Forester, having a charm that distinguishes it from other city parks. It has a present area of 1,040 acres, of which 300 acres have been sufficiently reclaimed to be planted with coniferous trees. "It is this portion of the park which the visitor sees as one of the sights of the Golden Gate." As he rides through the park out toward the Cliff House and Sutro Heights by the Sea, "he sees still great stretches of sand, some loose, some still held in place by the long stems and rhizomes of the sand grass (Arundo arenaria). This is the preparatory stage in park-making. The method in brief is as follows: The shifting sand is seeded with Arundo arenaria, and this is allowed to grow two years, when the ground is sufficiently held in place to begin the second stage of reclamation, which consists in planting arboreal species, generally the Monterey pine (Pinus insignis) and the Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpus); with these are also planted the smaller Leptospermum lævigatum and Acacia latifolia. These species in two or more years complete the reclamation, and then attention is directed to making up all losses of plants and encouraging growth as much as possible." The entire cost of reclamation by these methods is represented not to average more than fifty dollars per acre.


A Fossiliferous Formation below the Cambrian.—Mr. George F. Matthew said, in a communication to the New York Academy of Sciences, that he had been aware for several years of the existence of fauna in the rocks below those containing Paradorides and Protolenus in New Brunswick, eastern Canada, but that the remains of the higher types of organisms found in those rocks were so poorly preserved and fragmentary that they gave a very imperfect knowledge of their nature. Only the casts of Hyolithidæ, the mold of an obelus, a ribbed shell, and parts of what appeared to be the arms and bodies of crinoids were known, to assure us that there had been living forms in the seas of that early time other than Protozoa and burrowing worms. These objects were found in the upper division of a series of rocks immediately subjacent to the Cambrian strata containing Protolenus, etc. As a decided physical break was discovered between the strata containing them and those having Protolenus, the underlying series was thought worthy of a distinctive name, and was called Etchemenian, after a tribe of aborigines that once inhabited the region. In most countries the basement of the Paleozoic sediments seems almost devoid of organic remains. Only unsatisfactory results have followed the search for them in Europe, and America did not seem to promise a much better return. Nevertheless, the indications of a fauna obtained in the maritime provinces of Canada seemed to afford a hope that somewhere "these basement beds of the Paleozoic might yield remains in a better state of preservation. The author, therefore, in the summer of 1898, made a visit to a part of Newfoundland where a clear section of sediments had been found below the horizons of Paradoxides and Agraulos strenuus. These formations were examined at Manuel's Brook and Smith's Sound. In the beds defined as Etchemenian no trilobites were found, though other classes of animals, such as gastropods, brachiopods, and lamellibranchs, occur, with which trilobites elsewhere are usually associated in the Cambrian and later geological systems. The absence, or possibly the rarity of the trilobites appears to have special significance in view of their prominence among Cambrian fossils. The uniformity of conditions attending the depositions of the Etchemenian terrane throughout the Atlantic coast province of the Cambrian is spoken of as surprising and as pointing to a quiescent period of long continuance, during which the Hyolithidæ and Capulidæ developed so as to become the dominant types of the animal world, while the brachiopods, the lamellibranchs, and the other gastropods still were puny and insignificant." Mr. Matthew last year examined the red shales at Braintree, Mass., and was informed by Prof. W. O. Crosby that they included many of the types specified as characteristic of the Etchemenian fauna, and that no trilobites had with certainty been obtained from them. The conditions of their deposition closely resemble those of the Etchemenian of Newfoundland.


The Paris Exposition, 1900, and Congresses.—The grounds of the Paris Exposition of 1900 extend from the southwest angle of the Place de la Concorde along both banks of the Seine, nearly a mile and a half, to the Avenue de Suffren, which forms the western boundary of the Champ de Mars. The principal exhibition spaces are the Park of the Art palaces and the Esplanade des Invalides at the east, and the Champ de Mars and the Trocadéro at the west. Many entrances and exits will be provided, but the principal and most imposing one will be erected at the Place de la Concorde, in the form of a triumphal arch. Railways will be provided to bring visitors from the city to the grounds, and another railway will make their entire circuit. The total surface occupied by the exposition grounds is three hundred and thirty-six acres, while that of the exposition of 1889 was two hundred and forty acres. Another area has been secured in the Park of Vincennes for the exhibition of athletic games, sports, etc. The displays will be installed for the most part by groups instead of nations. The International Congress of Prehistoric Anthropology and Archæology will be held in connection with the exposition, August 20th to August 25th. The arrangements for it are under the charge of a committee that includes the masters and leading representatives of the science in France, of which M. le Dr. Verneau, 148 Rue Broca, Paris, is secretary general. A congress of persons interested in aërial navigation will be held in the Observatory of Meudon, the director of which, M. Janssen, is president of the Organizing Committee. Correspondence respecting this congress should be addressed to the secretary general, M. Triboulet, Director de Journal l'Aeronaute, 10 Rue de la Pepinière, Paris.


English Plant Names.—Common English and American names of plants are treated by Britton and Brown, in their Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada, and the British possessions, as full of interest from their origin, history, and significance. As observed in Britton and Holland's Dictionary, "they are derived from a variety of languages, often carrying us back to the early days of our country's history and to the various peoples who, as conquerors or colonists, have landed on our shores and left an impress on our language. Many of these Old-World words are full of poetical association, speaking to us of the thoughts and feelings of the Old-World people who invented them; others tell of the ancient mythology of our ancestors, of strange old mediæval usages, and of superstitions now almost forgotten." Most of these names, Britton and Brown continue in the preface to the third volume of their work, suggest their own explanation. "The greater number are either derived from the supposed uses, qualities, or properties of the plants; many refer to their habitat, appearance, or resemblance, real or fancied, to other things; others come from poetical suggestion, affection, or association with saints or persons. Many are very graphic, as the Western name prairie fire (Castillea coccinca); many are quaint or humorous, as cling rascal (Galium sparine) or wait-a-bit (Smilax rotundifolia); and in some the corruptions are amusing, as Aunt Jerichos (New England) for Angelica. The words horse, ox, dog, bull, snake, toad, are often used to denote size, coarseness, worthlessness, or aversion. Devil or devil's is used as a prefix for upward of forty of our plants, mostly expressive of dislike or of some traditional resemblance or association. A number of names have been contributed by the Indians, such as chinquapin, wicopy, pipsissewa, wankapin, etc., while the term Indian, evidently a favorite, is applied as a descriptive prefix to upward of eighty different plants." There should be no antagonism in the use of scientific and popular names, since their purposes are quite different. The scientific names are necessary to students for accuracy, "but the vernacular names are a part of the development of the language of each people. Though these names are sometimes indicative of specific characters and hence scientifically valuable, they are for the most part not at all scientific, but utilitarian, emotional, or picturesque. As such they are invaluable not for science, but for the common intelligence and the appreciation and enjoyment of the plant world,"


Educated Colored Labor.—In a paper published in connection with the Proceedings of the Trustees of the John F. Slater "Fund, Mr. Booker T. Washington describes his efforts, made at the suggestion of the trustees, to bring the work done at the Tuskegee school to the knowledge of the white people of the South, and their success. Mr. Carver, instructor in agriculture, went before the Alabama Legislature and gave an exhibition of his methods and results before the Committee on Agriculture. The displays of butter and other farm products proved so interesting that many members of the Legislature and other citizens inspected the exhibit, and all expressed their gratification. A full description of the work in agriculture was published in the Southern papers: "The result is that the white people are constantly applying to us for persons to take charge of farms, dairies, etc., and in many ways showing that their interest in our work is growing in proportion as they see the value of it." A visit made by the President of the United States gave an opportunity of assembling within the institution five members of the Cabinet with their families, the Governor of Alabama, both branches of the Alabama Legislature, and thousands of white and colored people from all parts of the South. "The occasion was most helpful in bringing together the two sections of our country and the two races. No people in any part of the world could have acted more generously and shown a deeper interest in this school than did the white people of Tuskegee and Macon County during the visit of the President."


Geology of Columbus, Ohio.—In his paper, read at the meeting of the American Association, on the geology of Ohio, Dr. Orton spoke of the construction of glacial drifts as found in central Ohio and the source of the material of the drift, showing that the bowlder clay is largely derived from the comminution of black slake, the remnants of which appear in North Columbus. He spoke also of the bowlders scattered over the surface of the region about Columbus, the parent rocks of which may be traced to the shores of the northern lakes, and of Jasper's conglomerate, picturesque fragments of which may be found throughout central Ohio. Some of these bowlders are known to have come from Lake Ontario. Bowlders of native copper also occur, one of which was found eight feet below the surface in excavations carried on for the foundations of the asylum west of the Scioto.


Civilized and Savage.—Professor Semon, in his book In the Australian Bush, characterizes the treatment of the natives by the settlers as constituting, on the whole, one of the darkest chapters in the colonization of Australia. "Everywhere and always we find the same process: the whites arrive and settle in the hunting grounds of the blacks, who have frequented them since the remotest time. They raise paddocks, which the blacks are forbidden to enter. They breed cattle, which the blacks are not allowed to approach. Then it happens that these stupid savages do not know how to distinguish between a marsupial and a placental animal, and spear a calf or a cow instead of a kangaroo, and the white man takes revenge for this misdeed by systematically killing all the blacks that come before his gun. This, again, the natives take amiss, and throw a spear into his back when he rides through the bush, or invade his house when he is absent, killing his family and servants. Then arrive the 'native police,' a troop of blacks from another district, headed by a white officer. They know the tricks of their race, and take a special pleasure in hunting down their own countrymen, and they avenge the farmer dead by killing all the blacks in the neighborhood, sometimes also their women and children. This is the almost typical progress of colonization, and even though such things are abolished in the southeastern colonies and in southeast and central Queensland, they are by no means unheard of in the north and west."