Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/August 1878/Popular Miscellany

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POPULAR MISCELLANY.

Archæological Researches in the Great American Bottom.—The alluvial plain known as the "Great American Bottom," lying on the east side of the Mississippi, in Illinois, between Alton on the north and Chester on the south, and having an average width of eight or nine miles, is a region of wonderful fertility now, and the remains of ancient occupation there abundantly found prove that the mound-builders were not blind to the agricultural value of this remarkable tract. It was indeed "one of their greatest seats of empire," in the language of Mr. H. R. Howland, who has published, in the Bulletin of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, an account of certain notable archaeological researches made in the "American Bottom." The mounds in this tract seem to have been divided into three principal groups: one lying within the limits of East St. Louis; another on the banks of Long Lake, twelve miles northward; and the third—one of the most extraordinary groups in this country—between Indian Lake and Cahokia Greek, some six miles from the Mississippi, and eight miles to the northeast of East St. Louis. In this last group is the great Cahokia Mound, by far the most important monument left by the mound-builders. The several groups are connected by lines of mounds at irregular intervals, and the total number is at least two hundred. Some two or three years ago Mr. Howland, having learned that one of the mounds in the second group was being removed to procure material for road-making, repaired to the spot and found the work of destruction already well advanced. In the mean time some interesting discoveries had been made. At the height of four or five feet above the base of the mound the workmen came upon a considerable deposit of human bones, and on the same level were discovered a number of valuable relics, many of them wrapped in a sort of matting. This was made of a coarse, cane-like fibre, simply woven without twisting, the flat strands measuring about one-eighth inch in width. Among the articles found were several tortoise-shells of beaten copper. One of these was about one sixty-fourth of an inch thick, two and one-eighth inches long, and thirteen-sixteenths of an inch in height; this was the largest one of three in the author's possession. Their shape is remarkably true, the workmanship evincing delicate skill. Each tortoise-shell appears to have been originally covered with several wrappings, first a woven cloth of vegetable fibre, then a softer, finer fabric of rabbit's hair apparently, next a membranaceous coating, finally a layer of non-striated muscular fibre—possibly intestine or bladder. Besides these singular objects are two specimens of the lower jaw of the deer, the part which contains the teeth being incased in a thin covering of copper, and the whole wrapped in the same manner as the tortoiseshells. Other relics found in the same mound—specimens of handicraft, sea-shells from the Gulf of Mexico, etc.—give evidence of the high grade of technical skill and the far-reaching intercourse of the prehistoric people who, in the long forgotten past, inhabited the Great American Bottom.

 

Age of the Ohio "Forest-Beds."—The "forest-bed" of the Ohio geological formation is a "layer of carbonaceous matter, with logs and stumps, and sometimes upright trees." It everywhere rests upon true glacial drift, and in it are found remains of mammoth, mastodon, and their contemporaries. The deposit overlying this "forest-bed" in Ohio is, by Dr. Newberry, described as lacustrine drift, but Mr. W. J. McGee, in the American Journal of Science, shows that in Northeastern Iowa this same "forest-bed" is overlaid by true glacial drift, and therefore that it must be of interglacial age. In the region just named the uppermost deposit, overlying the "forest-bed," is beyond the shadow of a doubt glacial drift very slightly or not at all modified, and exhibiting no distinct stratification. The only difference between the upper and lower parts is that the lower part contains a larger proportion of gravel and worn bowlders from the immediate vicinity. The upper part contains no bowlders, indeed, except those of granite, syenite, quartzite, and other metamorphic rocks from far to the northward. These, however, are quite abundant. In some fields it has been necessary to remove dozens of bowlders of one hundred pounds' weight and upward from each acre before the land could be ploughed. Some also are quite large, reaching scores of tons in weight. Glacier-marked bowlders are rare, however. Perhaps one in a thousand shows plainly grooves and deep scorings; but many others are less distinctly marked. Still not more than one-tenth exhibit any other marks of glacial action than a rounded form.

 

Medico-Psychological Rubbish.—Dr. Maudsley's Journal of Medical Science quotes the following passage from the British Medical Journal as an example of the rubbish that passes current in medico-psychological matters: "One of the most curious facts connected with madness is the utter absence of tears amid the insane. Whatever the form of madness, tears are conspicuous by their absence, as much in the depression of melancholia or the excitement of mania as in the utter apathy of dementia. If a patient in a lunatic asylum be discovered in tears, it will be found that it is either a patient commencing to recover, or an emotional outbreak in an epileptic who is scarcely truly insane; while actually insane patients appear to have lost the power of weeping; it is only returning reason which can once more unloose the fountains of their tears. Even when a lunatic is telling one in fervid language how she has been deprived of her children, or the outrages that have been perpretrated on herself, her eye is never even moist. The ready gush of tears which accompanies the plaint of the sane woman contrasts with the dry-eyed appeal of the lunatic. It would indeed seem that tears give relief to feelings which, when pent up, lead to madness. It is one of the privileges of reason to be able to weep. Amid all the misery of the insane, they can find no relief in tears."

 

The Devil and the Oak-Trees.—A legend current among the peasants of Unterinnthal (Tyrol) accounts as follows for the sinuous outline of oak-leaves (we translate the legend from Die Natur): The wicked old fiend one day would tempt the good God, and so asked if he would grant him a trifling request. With a smile, the Lord answered, "What you ask will be granted so soon as the oaks have lost all their leaves." The Gottsei beiuns (literally, "God-be-with-us"—in old times people did not like to name the devil, lest he should appear) was delighted, and eagerly longed for the coming of autumn; but the oak-leaf gave no sign of falling. So the devil, somewhat disappointed, deferred his hope to winter. Winter came, but still the leaves clung fast to the oaks, though they rustled all yellow and brown in the wind. Satan had then to comfort himself with the thought that at least they would fall in the spring. But when joyous Spring came, making its progress through the verdant fields, first young leaves began to sprout, and not until these had grown to considerable size did the old ones drop off. Then the prince of darkness knew that his request would never be granted, for the oak never loses all its leaves at once. So in his rage he rushed howling and roaring at the oak-trees, and with his claws tore the leaves to pieces, and we, to this day, only see the shreds.

 

A Big Fish-Worm.—The people who inhabit the highlands of Southern Brazil have a firm belief in the existence of a gigantic earthworm fifty yards or more in length, five in breadth, covered with bones as with a coat-of-mail, and of such strength as to be able to uproot great pine-trees as though they were blades of grass, and to throw up such quantities of clay in making its way underground as to dam up streams and divert them into new courses. This redoubtable monster is known as the "Minhocao." Dr. Fritz Müller, who has for some years resided in Brazil, studying in particular the entomology of that country, has thought it worth his while seriously to investigate the grounds of this popular belief, and has published the result of his researches in a German periodical, from which Nature has taken the gist of his communication. As will be seen, he is inclined to admit, with considerable allowance, the truth of the popular stories. The evidence of the existence of the Minhocao is of this kind: About eight years ago one of these monsters made its appearance in the neighborhood of Lages, but perhaps it will be safer to say that it "is reported to have made its appearance." One Francisco de Amaral Varello, at a place distant ten kilometres from that town, saw, lying on the bank of the Rio das Caveiras, an animal nearly one metre in thickness, not very long, and with a snout like a pig. He went to call his neighbors, but when he returned to the rescue the animal had disappeared, and the party saw only the trench it had made in disappearing under the earth. A week later a similar trench was seen at the distance of some six kilometres from the former one. One F. Kelling, a German, from whom Dr. Müller got this information, was at the time a merchant at Lages, and he saw these trenches. Another German, E. Odebrecht, while surveying a line of road from Itajahy into the highlands of Santa Caterina several years ago, crossed a broad, marshy plain traversed by an arm of the Marombas River, where his progress was much impeded by "devious winding trenches which followed the course of the stream, and occasionally lost themselves in it." These trenches he is now inclined to believe to be the work of the Minhocao. Other testimony, relating to five or six earlier apparitions of the Minhocao, is cited, but we have no room to give it here. To Dr. Müller the conclusion appears inevitable that in the above-named region of Brazil "long trenches are met with, which are undoubtedly the work of some living animal. It might be suspected," he adds, "to be a gigantic fish allied to Lepidosiren and Ceratodus; 'the swine's snout' would show some resemblance to Ceratodus, while the other characters show rather an analogy to Lepidosiren. In any case," he concludes "it would be worth while to make further investigations about the Minhocao, and, if possible, to capture it for a zoölogical garden."

 

Aurora Borealis.—From statistics of the aurora borealis collected by H. Fritz, and extending from 1846 to the present year, we learn that out of 2,035 days in the months from August to April, on which auroras were seen, 1,107 were aurora-days in Finland, and that of these 1,107 auroras 794 were simultaneously visible in Europe and America, 101 only in Europe, and 212 were visible only in Finland. During the same period and within the same months, 928 auroras were seen in Europe or America which were invisible in Finland. These statistics further serve to show the geographical distribution of auroras, which is as follows: The zone of greatest frequency and intensity begins near Barrow Point (latitude 72° north), on the northern coast of America; thence it passes across the Great Bear Lake toward Hudson Bay, which it crosses at latitude 60° north, passing over Nain on the coast of Labrador, keeping south of Cape Farewell. Its further course is between Iceland and the Faroe Isles, to the vicinity of North Cape in Norway, and thence into the Arctic Sea. Thence it probably passes round Nova Zembla and Cape Isheljuskin, approaches the north coast of Asia in the eastern part of Siberia, in the longitude of Nizhni Kolymsk, and thence returns to Barrow Point.

 

Analogies of Plant and Animal Life.—Some very interesting analogies of plant and animal life are pointed out by Mr. Francis Darwin in a recent lecture. In the first stage of individual existence—the egg or the germ—the analogy is perfect; it is no less so in the stage just succeeding. Among animals there are great differences as to the degree of development attained by the young ones before they enter the world. For instance, a young kangaroo is born in a comparatively early stage of development, and is merely capable of passive existence in its mother's pouch, while a young calf or lamb soon leads an active existence. Or compare a human child, which passes through so prolonged a condition of helplessness, with a young chicken, which runs about and picks up grain as soon as it quits the shell. As analogous cases among plants Mr. Darwin cites the mangrove and the tobacco-plant. The ripe seed of the mangrove is not scattered about, but remains attached to the capsule still hanging on the mother-plant. In this state the seeds germinate and the roots grow out and down to the sea-level, and the plant is not deserted by its mother until it has got well established in the mud. For the conditions of life against which the young mangrove has to make a start are unfavorable enough. The most intrepid seedling might well cling to its parent on finding that it was expected to germinate in soft mud daily flooded by the tide. Perhaps, adds the author, the same excuse may be offered for the helplessness of babies—the more complicated the conditions of life, the greater dependence must there be of offspring on parent. Compare a young tobacco-plant with a young mangrove. All the help the seedling tobacco receives from its parent is a very small supply of food. This it uses up in forming its first pair of leaves, and it has then nothing left by way of reserve, but must depend on its own exertions for subsistence—that is to say, it must itself manufacture starch (which is the great article of food required by plants) from the carbonic acid in the air. In this respect it is like a caterpillar which is formed from the contents of the egg, but has to get its own living as soon as it is born.

 

The Construction and Erection of Lightning-Rods.—Dr. R. J. Mann lately summed up in a series of aphorisms the fundamental conditions to be observed in the construction of lightning-rods. We have not room here for the whole series, but select a few of the most important. The main stem of a copper lightning-conductor should never be less than 410 of an inch diameter; this dimension is not sufficient for a building more than eighty feet high. Galvanized iron may be used instead of copper, but then the diameter must be greater in the ratio of 6. 7 to 2.5, the conducting capacity of iron being to that of copper as 14 to 77. A galvanized iron-rope conductor should never be less than 810 of an inch diameter; a galvanized iron strip should be 4 inches wide and 18 of an inch thick. A lightning-rod must be continuous and unbroken from end to end. A rod need not be attached to a building by insulated fastenings; metal clamps may be safely employed, provided the rod be of good conducting capacity and otherwise efficient. Above, the rod must terminate in metal points, well projected into the air; these points should be multiple and perfectly sharp. The bottom of the conductor must be carried down into the earth and be connected with it by a surface-contact of large extent. All large masses of metal in a building should be metallically connected with the lightning-rod, except when they are liable to be occupied by people during a thunder-storm—an iron balcony, for instance. In such cases it is better not to have the iron connected with the conductor, for there is some risk of persons standing on the balcony furnishing a path for the lightning to the rod.

 

North American Archæology.—The directors of the Smithsonian Institution contemplate the publication of an exhaustive work on the antiquities of North America, and earnestly invite the coöperation of archæologists and of all who may be possessed of information concerning the aboriginal history of North America. The ancient monuments to be described in the work are mounds and earthworks, shell-heaps, cave and cliff dwellings, masonry, sculptured slabs or carved images, inscriptions, and rock paintings, graves and cemeteries, aboriginal quarries, and salt-works, caches or deposits of objects in large quantities, workshops or places of ancient aboriginal industry, ancient roads or trails, reservoirs and aqueducts. In addition to original records and descriptions of the objects here enumerated, the Smithsonian Institution desires to obtain copies of all books, memoirs, pamphlets, extracts from periodicals, and newspaper clippings, having any relation whatever to American archæology. Information is further solicited concerning all collections of American antiquities, however small, whether in private hands or in public museums. Any one can obtain, on application to the Smithsonian Institution, its "Circular in Reference to American Archæology," in which are stated in detail the different subjects concerning which specific information is wanted.

 

A New Fact in Natural History.—In the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy it is forbidden to eat any creature living in the waters that "hath not fins and scales." Of such animals it is written: "They shall be an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcasses in abomination." Christians, at least modern Christians, are not wont to hold oysters as "unclean" and "an abomination, "notwithstanding the very high authority on which they are so declared to be in the Holy Scriptures. But the Jew still obeys the divine command, as of old; hence the devout Hebrew knows nothing, from personal observation, of the delicate flavor of the oyster, and no doubt that savory bivalve has oftentimes been a stumbling block and a scandal for the weaker ones of the children of Israel. But a truly wonderful discovery has been made by a learned rabbi in England, which takes the oyster out of the class of things forbidden, and makes it as harmless to the conscience as, doubtless, it will be grateful to the palate of the Jew. This rabbi has read Mr. Darwin's works, and read them to some purpose, for he finds that, "in consequence of the theories" of that famous naturalist, "oysters are plants, and may therefore be eaten by Jews." We hasten to add that as yet the rabbi's views are merely matters of private opinion, and hence no safe guide for consciences; but a grand council will before long be summoned to render authoritative judgment in the matter. Its decision will be awaited with no little interest. It is to be hoped that the vegetable side will prevail. One strong argument in its favor is the notorious fact that oysters are planted, the result of course being the oyster-plant.

 

Peculiarities of Vision.—Mr. Galton, in his paper on "Composite Portraits" (see page 465 of this number), observes that "the two separate impressions received by the brain through the stereoscope do not seem to be relatively constant in their vividness, but sometimes the image seen by the left eye prevails over that seen by the right, and vice versa." This remark has elicited from a correspondent of Nature a communication in which he describes a very curious defect in his own eyesight. This correspondent's right eye is fairly long-sighted, but the left eye is short-sighted. Print which is read distinctly by the one at the distance of eighteen inches, cannot be easily read by the other at a distance of over eight and a quarter inches. The result of this is, that the right—the long-sighted eye—closes involuntarily when he reads. Again, when he looks intently at a distant view, the left or short-sighted eye shuts occasionally. When both eyes are open he has two separate images presented to the brain, one blurred and indistinct, even for faces a yard distant, and the other clearly defined for objects at ordinary distances. "How is it," he asks, "that my brain or mind rejects the blurred image, and chooses the distinct one? . . . . If I get a particle of dust in the good eye, or close it, I immediately see the blurred image. . . . This blurred image always appears at a higher level than the other. Things appear as a rule," he adds, "much flatter to me than to people who enjoy binocular vision. I know this because I have a pair of spectacles so arranged as to equalize my sight. When I put them on, objects like trees put on a delightful fullness and roundness to which I am usually quite a stranger. I may add that two of my brothers have a similar defect of vision."

 

The Cactus as a Lava-Breaker.—A citation, in the bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, from Dr. Peters, the famous asteroid-hunter, gives an interesting fact in relation to the doctor's earlier days, when he ate prickly pears, or the fruit of the Indian-fig cactus, on the sides of Mount Etna. He describes the lava-beds as covered with impenetrable patches of Opuntia ficus Indica the Indian fig-cactus. These patches are the result of economic planting, with the intention of producing soil on the lava-beds. The Sicilian throws down a handful of soil, then drops upon this a bit of the cactus, which immediately roots. The effect of this cactus-growth is to facilitate the weathering of the rock, and thus make soil. The next step, after clearing off the cactus, is to plant fig-trees. In this way the lava-beds of Mount Etna are transformed into fruitful gardens.

 

A New Septic Organism.—Mr. Dallinger lately gave, before the London Royal Society, an interesting account of the life-history of a peculiar microscopic organism discovered by him in certain decomposing fluids. This organism never exceeds the 14000 of an inch in long diameter; in shape it is oval; at its anterior extremity it has a head-like protrusion bearing a delicate flagellum. From the sides of the shorter or front segment of the oval project two long flagella, and these, as a rule, trail behind, one on each side. It swims rapidly, but has also the capacity of anchoring both of its lateral flagella to the floor of the microscope-stage, or to a decomposing mass in the drop of liquid in which it is examined under the microscope. By steadily observing it in the free-swimming condition, it may be seen to undergo self-division, the division beginning in the front flagellum, and proceeding until, by longitudinal fissure, a new lateral flagellum is made for each half. There are now two perfect organisms. The author confined his attention for some time continuously to one of the segmental portions, and succeeded in tracing the process to its ultimate results. Having so observed a number of the self-dividing organisms, he found that in the majority of cases, when the process of fissure ceased, there was simultaneous exhaustion of vital action, and death; but in a certain proportion of cases, in which fissure was not so long continued, there was a change to the amœboid condition, the lateral flagella being absorbed, and the body becoming oval with anterior flagellum only. It now swims easily, but only in a straight line. It soon comes in contact with a colony of the organism in the perfectly flagellate condition, attaches itself to one of them, which soon unanchors, and both swim away. In course of time their movements become sluggish; the sarcode of their bodies is palpably blending, they become quite still, except for amoeboid movements, and then become one oval mass. After three or four hours this pours out minute specks, which appear to develop into the adult form and size. The temperature of 142° Fahr. is fatal to the perfect organism; the "speck," germ, or spore, can bear with impunity a temperature of 250° Fahr.