Popular Science Monthly/Volume 58/February 1901/The Progress of Science


Criticism of the Government is a cherished prerogative of a democratic people. Shortcomings that would be regarded as inevitable in the conduct of a private institution, when discovered under Government control, are apt to be the target of very free speech. We believe that the scientific work at Washington is, on the whole, carried on as economically and efficiently as in our endowed universities, but no human institution is perfect, and just now the U. S. Naval Observatory is being subjected to a good deal of criticism by the astronomers of the country. There is a general consensus of opinion that, while researches and discoveries of the highest order have been made at the Naval Observatory, there has been a lack of the far-reaching and long-continued fundamental work which should be the chief end of a national institution of this character. It is also pretty generally agreed that one chief difficulty is the division of control, the Observatory having for superintendent a line officer of the Navy, with no knowledge of astronomy and a scientific director with no real authority. Last year a board of visitors was appointed by Secretary Long, consisting of the Hon. William E. Chandler, the Hon. Alston G. Dayton, Prof. E. C. Pickering, Prof. George C. Comstock and Prof. George E. Hale, who made a careful report, their chief recommendation being that the Observatory be under the control of a permanent board of visitors, who should prescribe the work to be undertaken and fill vacancies on the staff, the astronomers so appointed to be no longer officers of the Navy. The naval officer who happens to be superintendent of the Observatory has just now made a rather acrimonious reply to the report of the board of visitors, calling its recommendations 'preposterous' and 'ridiculous,' and maintaining that the work done at Washington is equal to that of the Greenwich Observatory.

It must be confessed that there is small likelihood that the recommendations of the board of visitors will be carried into effect. The naval officers at Washington have great and well deserved influence, and they must be persuaded either to consent to the transfer of the Observatory to another department or else to conduct the institution under the Navy in the way that will be most creditable to it and to the country. We regard the latter alternative as the more feasible. There may ultimately be a national department of education and science with a secretary in the cabinet, but the time for this has not yet come. In the meanwhile scientific work is distributed to different departments, and the Department of the Navy can conduct the Observatory, as is the case in Great Britain and France, as well as another department, even though the work of the Observatory and the Nautical Almanac are not exclusively, and perhaps not chiefly, of concern to the Navy. The stars—so long as they are not annexed—may logically belong to the department having to do with foreign affairs, but in this world logic is of less concern than making the best of existing circumstances. What we regard as essential is to convince the Department and the officers of the Navy that there should be a single head of the Observatory, selected as the man most competent by scientific attainments and executive ability to administer the institution. The promotion of the officer longest in the service to the scientific directorship and his retirement at the age of sixty-two years will certainly not always secure the best man possible or for a sufficiently long term of years. The director of the Observatory should be appointed by the President, on the recommendation of the Secretary of the Navy, and the latter should select one of two or three candidates nominated by some expert body such as the National Academy of Sciences. If such a plan were properly brought before the Secretary of the Navy, we believe that it would secure his approval and also the support of the officers of the Navy, who take pride in the Observatory. They would also probably agree that it would be more appropriate to change the name from 'Naval' to 'National' Observatory, it being administered by the Navy for the Nation.

The scientific students of the country have two general gatherings in the course of the year. In the summer the American Association for the Advancement of Science holds a migratory meeting, and with it assemble a number of special societies. During the Christmas holidays the American Society of Naturalists serves as a center for societies devoted to the natural sciences—morphology, physiology, anatomy, bacteriology, botany, psychology and anthropology. The meetings of these societies were held this winter at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, from the 26th to the 29th of December. There was no general registration of members, but the attendance was estimated at about three hundred, and as it consisted exclusively of working men of science, the number of papers presented was nearly equal to the attendance. The scientific work of the Society of Naturalists consists of a discussion on some subject of common interest, a lecture preceding the usual reception, and an address by the president, given at the annual dinner, while the 3pecial papers are presented to the groups of experts who make up the special societies. The discussion this year was on the relations of the Government to scientific research. It was opened by Prof. H. F. Osborn, of Columbia University, the American Museum of Natural History and the U. S. Geological Survey, who was followed by Prof. William B. Clark, of the Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Geological Survey; Dr. L. O. Howard, Chief of the Division of Entomology of the U. S. Department of Agriculture; Dr. B. T. Galloway, Superintendent of Experimental Gardens and Grounds, U. S. Department of Agriculture, and Prof. William T. Sedgwick, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The evening lecture on 'Indians of the Southwest,' elaborately illustrated, was given by Dr. Frank Russell, of Harvard University. The address of the president, Prof. E. B. Wilson, of Columbia University, was entitled 'Aims and Methods of Study in Natural History.' While the naturalists were meeting at Baltimore, the Geological Society of America held its thirteenth winter meeting at Albany, and the American Chemical Society held its twenty-second general meeting at Chicago. The American Physical Society and the American Mathematical Society held their sessions as usual in New York, while a branch of the latter society met at Chicago. There was also in Chicago a meeting of the Naturalists of the Western and Central States, with an attendance of one hundred members and a program containing about forty papers. The academies of a number of the Central and Western States, including Ohio, Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin and Nebraska, also held their annual meetings. When it is stated that about five hundred scientific papers were presented before these societies, it will be seen how impossible it is to give a report of their great and far-reaching activity. W T e may, however, illustrate the character of their work by three or four examples.

As an example of the scientific work carried on by morphologists at the present time, we may note two important papers presented by Prof. E. B. Wilson, of Columbia University, at Baltimore. One of the most interesting biological results of recent years is the discovery of Loeb that the eggs of the sea-urchin may be caused to develop, without the influence of the male element, by treatment with solutions of magnesium chloride or other substances added to the sea-water. Wilson has now examined the internal processes occurring in these eggs. Phenomena of this character had been earlier studied by Richard Hertwig and Morgan, whose work paved the way for that of Loeb; but neither of these observers succeeded in obtaining complete embryos, the eggs only having passed through the initial stages of development. Wilson's observations bring the decisive proof that the eggs, developed under these conditions, have not been accidentally fertilized. It is well known that in the fertilization of the egg an equal number of chromosomes are contributed by the egg and the spermatozoon, this number being in every known case one-half that characteristic of the tissue cells of the species. If, therefore, the magnesium eggs really develop without union with a spermatozoon, we should expect to find them showing but one-half the number of chromosomes occurring in fertilized eggs. Such is, in fact, the case in the magnesium eggs (of Toxopneustes), the number of chromosomes being here 18, while in normal fertilization it is 18 plus 18, or 36. Every doubt is thus removed regarding the accuracy of Loeb's general result. Interesting light is thrown by the observations on many features of the process of normal fertilization. According to Boveri's well-known theory, the egg is induced to develop through the importation of a centrosome carried by the spermatozoon. In the magnesium eggs this is obviously out of the question; and Wilson's studios, supplementing the earlier ones of Hertwig and Morgan along the same lines, give strong evidence not only that the importation of a centrosome is not necessary to development, but also that the centrosomes of the dividing magnesium eggs are formed de novo out of the egg-substance. As observed by Morgan, these eggs often become filled with large numbers of asters, each of which contain a centrosome. One of the most interesting results of Wilson's work is the discovery that these asters may multiply by division and form centers of cytoplasmic division, even when they have no connection with nuclear material. The important point was determined also that similar asters and centrosomes, likewise capable of division, are formed in non-nucleated egg-fragments obtained by shaking the eggs to pieces—a fact which shows that the formation of a centrosome may be wholly independent of the nucleus.

In a second paper Wilson described experiments on etherizing normally fertilized eggs at various stages, the results of which bear nearly on some of the questions suggested by the magnesium eggs. The principal result of these experiments was to show that division of the nucleus and that of the cell-body, though parallel, are in considerable measure independent processes, which is in accordance with earlier studies by Hertwig, Demoor and others. The results give, further, considerable ground for the conclusion that the rays of the radiating systems or asters in dividing cells cannot be regarded as fixed, fibrillar structures, as is assumed by most of the prevailing views, but are tracts of protoplasmic flow, as was many years ago maintained by Fol and Bütschli. It was shown also that by suitable etherization of the eggs and subsequent transfer to sea-water, the type of fertilization characteristic of the sea-urchin may be artificially changed into that normally occurring in the starfish, and in many worms and mollusks; and, in like manner, that the cleavage of the egg may be transformed into a mode that is typical of many of the cœlenterates and arthropods. These observations show that many new and interesting conclusions bearing on the early stages of development may be looked for by further experimental studies along the lines marked out fourteen years ago by O. and R. Hertwig, which have been too much neglected by later observers.

The geologists were especially interested in a paper by Prof. Frank D. Adams, of McGill University, which gave the results of an investigation on the flow of rocks when subjected to pressure in the laboratory under conditions which reproduce those obtaining in the deeper portions of the earth's crust. Marble was the rock on which most of the work was carried out, but harder rocks, such as granite, are now being studied. Small columns of marble were carefully turned, polished and accurately fitted into heavy wrought iron tubes, constructed on the plan of heavy ordnance by wrapping strips of wrought iron around a core of soft iron and welding the whole together. The core of iron was then bored out and the marble substituted for it. Heavy steel pistons were fitted into each end of the tube, and the rock was submitted to very high pressure, often for several months continuously, in especially constructed machines capable of developing pressures reaching nearly a hundred tons to the square inch. Under high pressures the marble was found to flow, bulging out the iron tube that enclosed it on all sides. When the iron tube was cut away a solid block of marble was obtained, which had completely altered its shape. It was found, however, that the marble in these cases was only about half as strong as the original rock. Other columns of marble were heated to temperatures of 300° C. and 400° C, and while thus heated the pressure was applied as before. Under these conditions the rock was found to flow readily and to retain its strength much better, being nearly as strong as the original rock. In the third series of experiments, the marble was not only heated to the temperatures before mentioned, but at the same time water under a pressure of 460 pounds to the square inch was forced through it while it was being compressed. Under these conditions, the marble, after being molded, was found to be as strong as it was originally. A microscopical study of the structure of the deformed marble shows that in these two latter cases the crystalline grains composing the marble had glided on one another.

Among the papers presented before the Bacteriological Society one of the most interesting was by H. L. Russell and S. F. Babcock, of Madison, Wis., upon the causes effective in the production of silage. The very great influence of bacteria in natural processes has led in the last few years to an assumption on the part of bacteriologists that these micro-organisms are agents in nearly all the general processes of nature involving chemical change. Among other phenomena connected with agriculture, it has been claimed that the changes which take place in corn fodder in the farmer's silo are the result of the growth of bacteria. These changes are accompanied by a rapid heating of the material when first placed in the silo and, later, by the production of peculiar flavors and aromas. These phenomena are so similar to those which bacteria are known to produce that it has been a very natural assumption that they are caused by micro-organisms. Russell and Babcock have been of the opinion that bacteriologists have gone too far in ascribing natural phenomena to bacterial agencies, and that it is necessary to look in different directions for the explanation of some of them. The production of silage, for example, they insist, is not the result of bacterial action. By carefully performed experiments they succeeded in producing normal silage under conditions in which bacterial growth was prevented. They conclude that the changes occurring in silage are produced partly by a continuation of the respiratory activities of the plant cells, which, for a time, are stimulated rather than checked when the plants are cut to pieces for storing in the silage, and partly as the result of the action of certain chemical ferments or enzymes, which are eliminated from the plant cells after the death of the plant. These two factors the authors regard as the efficient cause of these changes in silage which have hitherto been attributed to the growth of bacteria, and they believe that bacteria have nothing to do with the process when it takes place in a normal manner.

The outcome of the experiments in growing Sumatra tobacco in the Connecticut Valley, recently reported by the National Department of Agriculture, is something more than a successful attempt at plant introduction. It is a tribute to the efficiency which has been attained in the methods of conducting soil survey, and a notable illustration of the scientific and practical value of such a survey as a basis for judging of the adaptation of agricultural plants. Two years ago the Division of Soils, in connection with its soil surveys in the Connecticut Valley, located areas about Hartford which it believed were suited to the growth of Sumatra tobacco. At that time it had never been grown in the region, and was not supposed to be adapted to it. During the past season the experiment was undertaken, in co-operation with the Connecticut State Experiment Station, on about a third of an acre. This was shaded from the sun by erecting a framework upon which cheese-cloth was stretched at a distance of about nine feet above the ground, and inclosing the sides as well. The tobacco grew well, and in due time was harvested and fermented as is customary. The quality of the finished product was pronounced excellent, and hardly to be distinguished from the imported article. As a substantial proof of this the crop has just been sold to a dealer at an average price of 71 cents per pound, including tops, butts and trash, along with the choicer leaves. As much as $1.25 per pound was received for some of the unsorted product. The average price received for the regular tobacco crop grown in the locality is about 20 cents. The Sumatra tobacco gave a net profit at the rate of nearly $900 an acre, exclusive of the expense of erecting the shade. The framework will last several years, but the cheese-cloth will have to be renewed each year. The object of shading this tobacco is to produce a thin leaf with small veins and a more luxuriant growth. Shading simulates the natural conditions under which it grows by making the atmosphere more humid and less subject to sudden changes. The Sumatra leaf is used for cigar wrappers, and is especially valued because it is elastic, free from objectionable taste and aroma, has small veins, which reduce the waste, and the leaf cuts up to better advantage than the ordinary wrapper leaf on account of its shape. About six million dollars' worth of Sumatra tobacco is imported annually, upon which a duty of $9,000,000 is paid. The experts in the Division of Soils estimate from their surveys that there is sufficient soil adapted to its growth in Connecticut and Florida to produce all that is demanded. This year's success will undoubtedly stimulate attempts to grow it regardless of the adaptation of the soil, so that there are likely to be many failures and disappointments another season, unless the advice of the Department is followed.

An interesting chapter has been added to the knowledge of the inert gases of the atmosphere by Dr. Ramsay, the co-discoverer of argon, and Dr. Travers. A little more than two years ago they announced the discovery of krypton and neon, and at the same time obtained indications of two other gases, to which they gave the names of met-argon and xenon. They now find that the presence of the so-called met-argon was due to carbon in the phosphorus used for removing the oxygen. By the use of large quantities of liquid air they have, by fractional distillation, obtained sufficient amounts of krypton and xenon to study their properties and measure their physical constants. They are all monatomic gases, and in their inertness completely resemble argon and helium. The spectra of these elements have been examined and will shortly be published. The neon tube is extremely brilliant and of an orange-pink hue, and its spectrum is characterized by a multitude of intense orange and yellow lines. The krypton tube is pale violet, while that of xenon is sky-blue. The atomic weights of krypton and xenon are, respectively, 82 and 128, and the inert elements thus form a regular group lying between the halogens and the alkalies. The atomic weights are as follows: Helium, 4; neon, 20; argon, 40; krypton, 82; xenon, 128. Their physical properties also correspond with this grouping.

The daily papers have during the past month exploited with nearly equal prominence Mr. Tesla's pretended communications from the planets, the alleged discovery by Professor Loeb of an elixir of life, and Professor Pupin's important discovery improving the telephone and the telegraph. These three cases pretty well represent the different methods of newspaper science. Mr. Tesla likes to be advertised, and the arraignment of his vagaries by our correspondent, published in another column, is none too severe. Professor Loeb and Dr. Lingle have carried out valuable researches on the action of salts on muscular contraction, published in the 'American Journal of Physiology,' and these have been exaggerated and distorted in the daily press. We are requested by Professor Loeb to state that this has been done without his knowledge, and continued in spite of his earnest protest. Professor Pupin's discovery is reported with substantial accuracy as regards its nature, its importance, and the large sum paid by the American Bell Telephone Company for the patent. Professor Pupin's discovery was made in the course of a long theoretical and experimental investigation, carried on solely to increase our knowledge of electrical phenomena and without any reference to the Patent Office. The researches were communicated to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers last spring, and published in their 'Proceedings.' The application consists in the use of self-induction coils at regular intervals along a wire which counteract its capacity and maintain the distinctness of the electric wave. It is thus possible to telephone to San Francisco as distinctly as can now be done to Chicago, and in the use of lighter wires to Chicago alone hundreds of thousands of dollars are saved in the cost of copper. Underground wires for telephony can now be used, and ocean telephony is made possible.

The scientific societies, whose midwinter meetings are described above, have elected the following presidents for the ensuing year: American Society of Naturalists, Prof. W. T. Sedgwick, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; American Morphological Society, Prof. J. S. Kingsley, of Tufts College; American Society of Bacteriologists, Prof. W. H. Welch, of the Johns Hopkins University; Society of Plant Morphology and Physiology, Dr. Erwin F. Smith, U. S. Department of Agriculture; Folk-lore Society, Dr. Frank Russell, of Harvard University; American Psychological Association, Prof. Josiah Royce, of Harvard University: American Mathematical Society, Prof. E. H. Moore, of the University of Chicago; American Chemical Society, Prof. W. F. Clarke, of the U. S. Geological Survey; the Geological Society of America, the Hon. Charles D. Wolcott, Director of the U. S. Geological Survey.—Porf. E. E. Barnard, of the Yerkes Observatory, has been awarded the Janssen prize of the Paris Academy of Sciences for his discovery of the fifth satellite of Jupiter.—Dr. G. A. Miller, of Cornell University, has been awarded the mathematical prize of the Academy of Sciences, at Cracow.—Prof. H. C. Bumpus, of Brown University, has been appointed curator of invertebrate zoology and assistant to the president in the American Museum of Natural History, New York.—We record with regret the death of Lord William Armstrong, inventor of the gun that bears his name and of hydraulic machinery, and of Mr. William Pole, an eminent engineer and man of science, best known, perhaps, to the general public as the author of the 'Evolution of Whist.'—Mr. John D. Rockefeller has made a further gift of one and a half million dollars to the University of Chicago.—Among the public bequests made by the late Henry Villard are $50,000 each to Harvard and Columbia Universities.—The Huxley Memorial Committee announces that the sum of about $17,000 has been subscribed for the statue now in the Natural History Museum, London, and for the Huxley gold medal to be awarded by the Royal College of Science.—The collection of minerals and meteorites made by Mr. Clarence S. Bement, of Philadelphia, has been acquired by the American Museum of Natural History, New York.—The Duke of the Abruzzi proposes to start from Buenos Ayres in 1902 on a voyage to explore the South Polar Seas. A ship is to be built in Italy for the purpose.—Drs. Sambon and Low have returned to England, after the summer spent in the mosquito-proof hut in the Roman Campagna. They are in excellent health, though it is said that the past summer was exceptionally malarious. For example, fifteen or sixteen police agents were sent to Ostia, and though they only remained a night in the place, they all developed fever.—The daily papers report that the Finlay theory of the propagation of yellow fever by mosquitoes has been further confirmed by the commission now studying the subject in Cuba. Cable despatches state that a monkey which had been bitten by an infected mosquito developed on the fourth day well-marked symptoms; that of six nonimmunes bitten by mosquitoes which had previously bitten yellow fever patients five developed yellow fever, while subjects who slept in infected clothing and bedding, but were guarded from mosquitoes, were untouched.—