Popular Science Monthly/Volume 60/January 1902/The Progress of Science



The efforts to secure a convocation week for the meetings of scientific and learned societies have met with gratifying success. It may be remembered that a note in a former issue of this magazine called attention to the appointment of a committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science which secured the cooperation of the Association of American Universities. Most of our leading institutions have now decided to set apart for these meetings the week in which the first of January falls. In some cases no change in the calendar was required, in others it has only been decided that officers may have leave of absence, but in many the Christmas holidays have been lengthened by a few days. The movement has met with practically universal approval, both on the part of institutions of learning and on the part of scientific societies, and represents a gain for science, the importance of which can scarcely be overstated. The advancement and the diffusion of science depend largely on the meetings of our societies. It is of the utmost importance for scientific men to come together and discuss their common interests. Only so can a high and uniform standard be maintained throughout the country, only so will an eager interest in advanced work and research be maintained, only so will men find their proper places and the work they are best able to do, only so will science be adequately recognized and supported by the community. Hitherto the scientific meetings have been divided between summer and winter. The American Association has met in the summer holidays and with it the societies devoted to the physical sciences. In midsummer it is impossible for many to attend the meetings, and those who do suffer great personal inconvenience; the week between Christmas and New Year's Day is too short, breaking into Christmas time and being interrupted by Sunday. This year, for the first time, the week after that in which Christmas falls has been recognized as convocation week, and affords a convenient time for the meetings.

The council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science meets at Chicago on January 1, and the Section of Anthropology of the Association holds a winter meeting at Chicago. The Association will hold a summer meeting at Pittsburgh next year, but will hold a winter meeting in Washington in the following convocation week. The American Society of Naturalists meets at Chicago on December 31 and January 1, in conjunction with the Western Naturalists, and the national societies devoted to morphology, bacteriology, anatomy, physiology and psychology will meet at the same place and on the same days and on the days immediately preceding and following. Other societies meet elsewhere this winter; but it is expected that they will all meet at Washington next year, and that it will be possible hereafter to bring together at least once in three years the great majority of those engaged in scientific work in America.


President Roosevelt's message to the Congress has been more widely read and more generally approved than any other recent document of this kind. It contains no platitudes worded in questionable English; it is a vigorous expression of a straightforward and hopeful policy that is American rather than partisan. Such a message should do something towards making obsolete that form of party government which leads one half the people to prevent the other half from doing anything. Even in directions such as the maintenance of the present tariff and the enlargement of the navy, where the president's policy is opposed by a strong minority, it seems that he expresses the general sense of the nation, and in any case the division is not along the inherited party lines.

Apart from the emphasis on efficiency and expertness in all departments of the government which gives the whole message a certain scientific coloring, there are several recommendations that are directly concerned with science and its applications. Three great engineering works are urged—the Isthmian Canal, the Pacific Cable and Irrigation. These enterprises are directly dependent on applied science, and their accomplishment, under the direction of American engineers, will give new opportunities for scientific progress. It appears that we may need to go to Great Britain for the cable, but this ought not to be necessary five years hence. In the case of forestry and irrigation, which are said to be perhaps the most vital internal questions of the United States and are discussed at greater length than any others, the president fully realizes the need of expert and scientific direction. It is recommended that the scientific bureaus concerned with these subjects bp united and put under the Department of Agriculture. Concerning this department the president says:

"The Department of Agriculture during the past fifteen years has steadily broadened its work on economic lines, and has accomplished results of real value in upbuilding domestic and foreign trade. It has gone into new fields until it is now in touch with all sections of our country and with two of the island groups that have lately come under our jurisdiction, whose people must look to agriculture as a livelihood. It is searching the world for grains, grasses, fruits and vegetables especially fitted for introduction into localities in the several states and territories where they may add materially to our resources. By scientific attention to soil survey and possible new crops, to breeding of new varieties of plants, to experimental shipments, to animal industry and applied chemistry, very practical aid has been given our farming and stock-growing interests. The products of the farm have taken an unprecedented place in our export trade during the year that has just closed."

The president recommends the creation of a cabinet officer, to be known as secretary of commerce and industries. He calls attention to the important work of the Smithsonian Institution and the needs of the National Museum. He emphasizes the value of the 'National Library,' and advocates a permanent census bureau 'for the sake of good administration, sound economy and the advancement of science.'


The President does not refer in his message to the U. S. Naval Observatory, but he doubtless approves the recommendations in the report of Secretary Long, which, if carried into effect by the Congress, will remove the difficulties which have so long interfered with the scientific work of our national observatory. Secretary Long says:

"Attention is called to the first and very important report of the board of visitors to the Naval Observatory. I earnestly commend its recommendations to careful consideration. This board was created by act of Congress in March last. I believe its visitations will be found valuable in making the the best institutions of the land. It appears that no other observatory in the world has the expenditure of so much money, but also that its results are not commensurate with those of some other observatories the expenditures of which are less. Its head should of course be the best astronomer, who has proper administrative qualifications, that can be found in the country. It is especially desirable that he should have continuity of tenure, as the observatory has undoubtedly suffered from frequent changes in its superintendents.

"While the average term of service of superintendents at Greenwich has been twenty-eight years and at Harvard fifteen, at the Naval Observatory it has been only a little over three. I urgently recommend that the legislation of the last Congress to the effect 'that the superintendent of the Naval Observatory shall be, until further legislation by Congress, a line officer of the navy of a rank not below that of captain,' be repealed, and that on the contrary it be enacted that there shall be no limitation upon the field from which the superintendent is to be selected. As well might the above quoted statute have provided that the commissioner of fish and fisheries should be selected from the line of the marine corps, or the director of the Geological Survey from the line of the army.

"There is no vital relation between the navy and the observatory. It may happen that some naval officer is preeminently qualified for such a place, in which case he would be appointed to it, but the country is entitled to have unlimited range of selection. The present limitation, which shuts out the whole body of civilian astronomers and even any astronomer in the navy who does not happen to be in the line, or, if in the line, below the rank of captain, is peculiar. Only a very small proportion of naval officers are not below the rank of captain, and as most of them are required for naval services—a requirement which is now increasing—the list from which selection can be made is a noticeably small one. It is evident, too, from the wording of the above quotation from the statute, that Congress in passing it had in mind further legislation in this respect."


The report of the Secretary of Agriculture for the past year shows that progress has been made in strengthening the organization of the National Department of Agriculture, and in increasing the breadth and efficiency of its scientific work. Four bureaus have been organized for the purpose of bringing together more closely the allied lines of work and providing for the expansion which has been authorized by Congress in other lines. These are the Bureaus of Plant Industry, of Soils, of Forestry and of Chemistry. The Bureau of Plant Industry, the creation of which has involved the most reorganization of any of the new bureaus, combines under one head the work in nine different branches, each presided over by an expert, and with a corps of more than two hundred efficient workers. The unification of work and the closer cooperation which have resulted, together with the economy of time in administration, lead the secretary to recommend a further extension of the bureau system in the department. He announces that preliminary plans have been procured for a new agricultural building, providing facilities for bringing together all the administrative and laboratory work in the various lines under one roof.

The report shows that the department has been alert in its efforts to extend the markets for our agricultural products abroad, and no less so in seeking to bring about the production in this country and its new possessions of a large part of the $400,000,000 worth of products which are at present imported. One half of this now comes from such climates as prevail in Hawaii, Porto Rico and the Philippine Islands, and the secretary declares that 'it is the privilege and duty of the department of agriculture to teach the people of those islands to produce what we now buy from tropical countries.' The establishment of experiment stations in Hawaii and Porto Rico during the year was an important step in that direction. Both these stations have been placed in charge of men sent out from the department, which has also furnished the chief of the new Bureau of Agriculture for the Philippines, established under the War Department in October. An experiment station for the Philippines, to work in cooperation with the new bureau, is strongly recommended. The efficient and valuable work of the experiment stations all over the country is becoming more apparent every year, and a broader, deeper foundation of scientific inquiry is being laid. Cooperation between the department and the stations has greatly increased, so as to meet the varied national and local needs of agriculture and extend the benefits of agricultural investigation to every part of the Union. This cooperation is taking a variety of forms, such as experiments to find grasses, forage crops and cereal grains better adapted to particular localities; experiments in range renovation and management, which are sorely needed in some sections of the West; studies of the water requirements of crops in the irrigated region and of the problems of water conservation and management; soil studies; sugar-beet production; plant-breeding experiments, and studies on the food of man, its preparation and use. In the recent development of the department's work, forestry, soil studies and irrigation have assumed places of prominence. The forestry work, besides the investigations in that subject, deals with the preparation of working plans for the management of forests. Applications for such plans covering over 52 million acres are now on file, a number being from large lumbering companies. The soil survey is being carried on in different parts of the country, and numerous fundamental problems are studied in the laboratories. A new feature of this work will be in the field of soil climatology, a field which is practically new to science. The irrigation studies have not been confined to the arid western states, but have been continued on a more extensive plan in the humid climates, such as Louisiana, Missouri, Wisconsin and New Jersey, indicating that 'irrigation is to have a wide field of usefulness in many sections where it is not a necessity.' The secretary expresses himself at length on the subject of national aid for irrigation, holding that public aid will be necessary in the construction of certain irrigation works, and that reservoirs located in the channels of running streams should be public works, but he holds that the first step toward national aid should be the passage of enlightened codes of water laws by the states to be benefited. In the various other lines of research—in studies of plant diseases and insect pests, the origination or discovery of plants more resistant to disease or climate, the fermentation of tobacco, and the preparation and application of serums and toxins for combating animal diseases—the same spirit of progress has characterized the work as in previous years, and results of much practical as well as scientific importance are announced.


No more striking astronomical discovery has been made in recent years than that of the moving nebulous masses around Nova Persei. That remarkable star, now apparently a gaseous nebula, is still of about the sixth magnitude. Flammarion, Antoniadi and others, found on photographs of the star a halo, which did cot appear about other stars on the same plate, and which was thought to be nebulous. Later it was shown by Professor Max Wolf that this aureole was instrumental, and due to the fact that the Nova was rich in rays for which the lenses were uncorrected. At the same time Wolf found that the Nova was surrounded by a faint nebulosity. Long exposures with the powerful reflecting telescopes of the Yerkes and Lick Observatories showed well this nebulosity, and, especially, nebulous patches at considerable distances from the Nova. From later photographs it was announced from the Lick Observatory and confirmed at the Yerkes Observatory, that these nebulous masses are moving away from the Nova. This is a discovery of the highest importance, having a direct relation to the theory of new stars. The motion of the nebula is very great, amounting to about 1′ of arc in six weeks. Carried backward this motion would bring the nebulous masses at the Nova, when the outburst occurred, a fact of much interest. What this rate of movement represents in miles per second cannot be assumed safely until the star's parallax is known. This has not yet been determined. Our nearest neighbor among the stars, so far as known, has a parallax of less than 1″. A parallax as great as 1″ would indicate a velocity of something like 1,500 miles per second. Either the Nova is very near us, or else the velocity of the Nebula is almost inconceivably great. Indeed, if the parallax should prove to be too small for measurement, the fact would imply a velocity so great that it might be better explained as a motion of light, rather than of matter. The motion, moreover, appears not to be radial, but spiral. The broadening of the lines of the spectrum of the Nova furnishes a clue to the rapidity of motion, the value of which is, however, very doubtful. No definite conclusions can be safely drawn until more data arc obtained, and a satisfactory determination of the parallax is given. Meanwhile the astronomical world is watching the developments mth the keenest interest. Incidentally the investigation is furnishing a powerful argument for a more extended use of large reflecting telescopes. It may be, that the Golden Age of the refracting telescope has passed!


An interesting question which often occurs to the astronomer and the physicist is that of the magnitude and the material contents of the visible universe. While science is unable at present to give a decisive answer to this question it is nevertheless competent to correlate the observed facts to such an extent that a possible, if not a probable, answer is already attainable. The latest contribution to this subject is due to the indefatigable labors of Lord Kelvin. In the 'Philosophical Magazine' for August, 1901, he attacks the question from the dynamical side in an article 'On ether and gravitational matter through infinite space'; and at the September meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science he amplified his investigation in a paper on 'The absolute amount of gravitational matter in any large volume of interstellar space.'

The data for Kelvin's investigation are as follows: The part of the universe visible to us may be considered to lie within a sphere having a radius equal to the distance of a star whose parallax is one thousandth of a second of arc. This distance is about thirty thousand million million kilometres; a distance so great that light would require about three thousand years to traverse it. The number of stars, luminous and non-luminous, within this sphere, Kelvin estimates to be something like one thousand million. This agrees well with the figures of Newcomb and Young who have estimated that the visible stars are fifty to one hundred millions in number. Assuming the average mass of these stars to be equal to the mass of our sun, the amount of mass in the visible universe is about 2 1036 metric tons.

Now, if these thousand million suns had been uniformly distributed within the sphere in question, and had started from rest twenty-five million years ago, they would have acquired under the law of gravitation about such velocities as the stars are now observed to possess; or, if thousands of millions of years ago they started from rest at mutual distances asunder, very great in comparison with the radius of the supposed sphere, and so distributed that they would now be temporarily equally spaced in that sphere, their mean velocities would be of the same order as that actually observed. A non-uniform initial distribution of the suns would give higher velocities for the stars than the observed values; and any great increase in the assumed number of suns would require far greater velocities than the observed values. Hence Kelvin infers that the amount of mass in our universe is greater than one hundred million times and less than two thousand million times our sun's mass.

That there would be plenty of room for a thousand million suns in the assumed sphere is shown by a striking calculation made by Kelvin. Thus, if the suns were placed severally at the centers of the thousand million cubes into which their enclosing sphere may be supposed to be divided, then each sun would be nearly fifty million million kilometres from each of its six nearest neighbors. This distance is a little greater than the distance of the nearest fixed stars from our solar system.


The great Nobel prizes, each of the value of about $40,000, have now been awarded for the first time as follows: In Medicine to Professor Behring, in physics to Professor Röntgen, in chemistry to Professor van't Hoff. The prize for the promotion of peace has been divided between Dr. Dumant and M. Passy, and the prize in literature has been awarded to M. Prudhomme.

The Copley Medal of the Royal Society has been awarded to Professor J. Willard Gibbs, of Yale University.—Director W. W. Campbell, of the Lick Observatory, has been elected an associate member of the Royal Astronomical Society.—Professor F. Lamson-Scribner, of the United States Department of Agriculture, has been given charge of the Bureau of Agriculture established in the Philippines.

The most important scientific news of the month is Mr. Carnegie's offer of $10,000,000 to endow a national university or institution for scientific research at Washington. The national government hesitates to accept the bonds of the United States Steel Corporation offered by Mr. Carnegie, but this is a detail which will doubtless be arranged.—On the same day that Mr. Carnegie's gift became known, it was announced that Mrs. Stanford had signed the final papers transferring property, estimated at $30,000,000, to Leland Stanford Junior University. It appears that the endowment of Stanford is now about equal to the combined endowment of our three richest universities—Harvard, Columbia and Chicago.