Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/March 1890/Popular Miscellany

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POPULAR MISCELLANY.

The Future of our Weather Service.—Everybody has been noticing that more and more of our official weather predictions turn out wrong, and in the hope of restoring their former efficiency several bills have been introduced into Congress within the last few years for transferring the Weather Service from the War Department to a civil bureau. The reasons for such a change, as stated in a pamphlet sent to us by Mr. H. H. Clayton, are that military regulations hamper the scientific work of the bureau, and cause civilians, who have joined the service from aptitude for science, to resign. The abler military men, also, seeing no hope of promotion in the Signal Corps, generally prefer the line. The natural result has been that, as General Greely reports, the service is full of incompetents, and the percentage of successful weather predictions has decreased in the last five or six years from eighty-seven to seventy-six per cent. During the same time the weather service in European countries has been steadily gaining in efficiency. The objections to the transfer are: First, that military control is claimed to secure superior promptness, accuracy, and continuity of record, which is met by the statement that the European weather services are entirely civilian, and our own depends for some of its data upon observations telegraphed by civilian observers from about twenty stations in Canada. Second, it is claimed that only military discipline could keep men in disagreeable or dangerous places; but civilian observers are found to man the Canadian meteorological outposts in Manitoba, and the mountain-peak stations in Europe. Third, it has been urged that the cost of the weather service would be increased by civilian control; but our military weather service costs more than the civilian services of all the governments of Europe put together. The appropriations are now about $900,000 a year, and some considerable reduction that has been made in the cost during the last few years has been due to the employment of civilian aid. Fourth, it has been urged that the military training of the observers would be of value in case of war; but if this argument is valid, the postal service and all the other Government departments should be put under military control. A fifth objection is, that in a civil bureau the appointments would be controlled by political influence. But with the protection of the civil service rules, it is probable that the bureau would be at least as free from favoritism as the army is. It has also been objected that the Government would be breaking its contract with the men of the Signal Corps if they were transferred to a civil bureau. But this difficulty could be met by allowing the military men now in the bureau to choose whether they would go with the Weather Service or stay with the Signal Corps. The chief signal officer is even better aware of the defects of the Weather Service than any outside critic. But the remedy which General Greely proposes is to replace the second lieutenants in the Weather Service by officers of higher rank, and that future vacancies in the lowest rank of commissioned officers in the service shall be filled by transfer from the line of the army. This latter provision, by taking away hope of promotion from the sergeants and privates, would deter able men from entering the lower grades, and gaining the experience necessary for filling the higher positions. Moreover, the Weather Service has so absorbed the Signal Corps that the major-general in command of the army is now urging the formation of a special Signal Corps for actual army purposes. Both these schemes would involve additional expense, but the transfer of the Weather Service to, say, the Department of Agriculture, would secure the same ends by leaving the present Signal Corps free for signaling service, and allowing the meteorological work to be put in charge of scientific men instead of soldiers, while the cost of the work would be lessened instead of increased.

 

Open-air Travel for Consumption.—Dr. Henry L. Bowditch has given the Climatological Association an account of the treatment which seems to have counteracted a strong tendency to consumption in his own family. In 1808 his father, then thirty-five years old, was undoubtedly threatened with consumption. On August 29th of that year, when thus ill, he started from Salem, Mass., with a friend as his companion and driver, in an open one-horse chaise, for a tour through New England. The trip lasted thirty days and covered 748 miles. During that time he passed from the deepest mental discouragement and physical weakness through all stages of feeling up to a real enjoyment of life. His journey, though benefiting him immensely, probably did not wholly cure him, but it proved to him the absolute need he had of regular, daily, physical, open-air exercise. Afterward, under walks of one and a half to two miles, taken three times daily, all pulmonary troubles disappeared. He died, thirty years after the journey, from carcinoma of the stomach, his lungs being normal except that one presented evidences of an ancient cicatrix at its apex. He prescribed for his children the same regular out-of-door exercise which had been so beneficial to him. As soon as they were old enough they were required to take daily morning walks of about a mile and a half. If at any time they were observed to be drooping, they were taken from school and sent into the country to have farm-life and out-of-door play to their hearts' content. In consequence of this early instruction, all his descendants have become thoroughly impressed with the advantages of daily walking, of summer vacations in the country, and of camping out, etc., among the mountains. Dr. Bowditch's father had married his cousin, who, after long invalidism, died of chronic phthisis in 1834. Certainly a consanguineous union of two consumptives foreboded nothing but evil. Yet, of their eight children, six are either now alive or they arrived at adult age, married, and have had children and grandchildren, but not a trace of phthisis has appeared in any of these ninety-three persons. Dr. Bowditch sees nothing but the influence of out-of-door life to which this immunity of his family from consumption can be attributed. He has prescribed it, under proper precautions, in his practice for years, and says, in conclusion: "I have no objection to drugs, properly chosen, and I almost always administer them; but if the choice were given me to stay in the house and use medicines, or to live constantly in the open air without them, I should infinitely prefer the latter course in case of my being threatened with pulmonary consumption."

 

Precious Stones in the United States.—Mr. George F. Kunz's report on precious stones to the United States Geological Survey's Division of Mining Statistics shows that the industries of our country in that line, though not very extensive, are more considerably developed than they are generally known to be. The principal localities where gems are sought for systematically are at Mount Mica, Paris, Me., and Stony Point, N. C. Considerable quantities of tourmaline and other gems are produced at Mount Apatite, Auburn, Me. Several localities in North and South Carolina and Kentucky have been opened and are worked for the production of zircon and several other comparatively rare minerals which have been looked on heretofore only as gems, but are now used for making the oxides of zirconium, lanthanum, cæsium, etc., to be employed for manufacturing purposes. A considerable number of cases of exceptional discoveries of gems of rare value are recorded, but they are so scattered as not to admit of grouping either by kind or place. Among the notable collections of gems in the United States mentioned by the author, are the three hundred and thirty-one antique gems of the late Rev. C. W. King, of England, which have been presented to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Mr. Maxville Somerville's collection of fifteen hundred specimens of antique jewel-carving art, now on loan in the Metropolitan Museum; the Rev. Dr. W. Hayes Ward's three hundred ancient Babylonian, Persian, and other cylinders, now the property of the museum; the gem collection bequeathed by Dr. Isaac Lea to his daughter; and the series of precious stones, including about one thousand specimens, which, though not expensive, are the finest in the United States from an educational point of view, belonging to the National Museum. Mr. Kunz also gives some interesting fashion-notes about precious stones. They fluctuate in favor. Amethysts and cameos, much sought for ten years ago, are now thrown out. Rubies, already very high, are all the time rising. Topaz is not in demand. Coral is going out, while the popularity of amber is increasing. The use of Brazilian pebbles has decupled since 1878. The rare stones known as "fancy stones," which were formerly kept only as specimens, are now looked upon as articles of trade, and as part of the normal jeweler's stock. Mr. Kunz, as agent of Tiffany & Co., had a fine collection of North American precious and ornamental stones at the Paris Exposition, of which we have published a laudatory notice by "La Nature." It included three hundred and eighty-two specimens.

 

Botany as a Disciplinary Study.—Botany is recommended as a disciplinary study by Mr. Gerald McCarthy. It is much in its favor that the objects with which it deals are convenient of access and full of interest. Among the other advantages that it offers are the adaptation of the study of plants to the cultivation of the æsthetic faculties; to training the mind to habits of close observation and discriminating judgment, orderly arrangement, and the "logic of systemization"; its presenting the phenomena of life in its least complicated manifestations; plants offering better opportunities for thorough study than is practicable with minerals and animals; the usefulness of the study as a recreation and mental tonic; and the inexhaustible field for research which it offers. If some object that the technical names are hard, "at the beginning it will serve just as well to use the common vernacular name, or even invent names for one's self. The name is the least important thing one can learn about a plant, and it is not wise for the beginner to exhaust his time and patience in trying to choose the most proper of several possible and equally unintelligible names. Rather he should seek to group the specimens around common types, thus learning for himself the philosophy of the natural system." But the scientific name must eventually be learned, and it will come easier after the student has observed well for himself. For young pupils, and older ones who are unfamiliar with Latin, Miss Youmans's "First Book in Botany" is recommended as the best manual to begin with. It will lead up to the more advanced works. But more useful than any book is the student's field outfit, of lenses and knives, needles and trowel, and air-tight specimen-box.

 

Causes of Unhealthiness in Large Cities.—The mere age of London, said Dr. G. V. Poor, in a lecture at the Sanitary Institute, was one of the reasons why it became unwholesome. Roman London was buried deeply among rubbish of all kinds, much of which was putrescible, and therefore a source of danger in the soil. Ancient London was well placed and magnificently supplied with water through the Thames and many smaller streams. All the smaller streams had become disgracefully foul, "and for very shame had been covered over." That mediæval London was very unhealthy, a perfect fever-den, there could be no doubt. The causes of the enormous mortality lay in the marshy, undrained soil, fouled with refuse of every kind; in the filthy state of the unpaved city, and a perfectly swinish condition of the houses of the lower orders; in the ill-nourished and drunken condition of the masses; in the state of superstition and brutality which made any measure of public health impracticable; in the bad management in epidemics, and in the incompetence of the medical faculty. There had been a great and manifest improvement in London. This could be credited to the increase of knowledge among the doctors and among the people generally; to vaccination and the modern plan of treating infectious diseases by the prompt separation of the patients; to the cheapness of food, clothing, and fuel, and the facility of obtaining fresh fruit and vegetables; to improved water-supply; and, although the system of sewage disposal was an undoubted evil, it had removed a great deal of filth from dwellings, and the balance was probably so far in its favor. The outlook in the future was obscured by increased overcrowding; the discharge of sewage into the Thames; and the increasing danger of the pollution of the water-supply by the accumulation of population along the valley of that river.

 

Clark University.—Clark University, Worcester, Mass., founded by Mr. Jonas G. Clark as an institution for the highest culture, was opened in October, 1889, in the departments of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology, under the presidency of G. Stanley Hall. The president is, for the time being, Professor of Psychology, and, with the assistance of Prof. Sandford, will assist students in the departments under that head by instruction, or by conference and guidance to literature; and will direct the work of special students in the history, methods, and organization of education, elementary, intermediate, and superior, lecturing on them during a part of the year. The professors are H. H. Donaldson in neurology, Edmund C. Sanford in psychology, Warren P. Lombard in physiology, F. Mall in anatomy, Albert A. Nicholson in physics. The methods of instruction include field-work, excursions, "coaching and cram classes," examinations, conferences, laboratory work, and lectures. The students are classified as independent, candidates for the degree of Ph. D., special students not candidates for a degree, medical students, and preliminary candidates or undergraduates.

Twenty fellowships and ten scholarships have been provided by Mr. and Mrs. Clark, affording free tuition to thirty persons.

 

Huron and Iroquois Burials.—In a paper on "Indian Burial in New York," read at the meeting of the American Association, Mr. W. M. Beauchamp said that several modes of burial prevailed in the Huron and Iroquois family at the same time; but at a later date the influence of contact with Europeans and of the custom of adoption was observed. Although the usual position in Indian burial was supposed to be a sitting posture, facing the west, the bodies in a large proportion of the New York graves, while sitting, faced the east. Many burials, both early and recent, were horizontal, and often without deposited articles. For secondary burial, bone-pits were common in the western part of the State, appearing like the Huron ossuaries of Canada, or rising into mounds. The eastern Iroquois, at least after the formation of their league, did not rebury their dead. They used raised tombs, sometimes a mound of earth, and often a wooden structure like a small house. Burial in circles was secondary; the bodies were laid with their feet toward the center. Graves lined with stones are not frequent, but stone heaps were raised over some graves. Bodies were rarely buried one above another, with an intervening layer of earth. When buried in mounds, or in the bone-pits, they might be placed promiscuously or arranged with care. The mode of sepulture was affected by superstition and in consideration of crime. The New York Indians have for a long time been burying their dead much in the manner of their white neighbors.

 

How the Woodcock feeds.—A writer in "Forest and Stream" gives the following account of the way he saw woodcock "boring" for worms one moonlight night: "The birds would rest their bills upon the mud and stand in this position for several seconds, as if listening. Then, with a sudden, swift movement, they would drive the bill its entire length in the soil, hold it so for a second, and then as swiftly withdraw it. Though I watched the birds carefully with the glass, I could not detect the presence of a worm in their bills when they were withdrawn. But a subsequent process gave me the clew to their method of feeding. After having bored over a considerable piece of ground—a square foot or more—they proceeded to execute what looked comically like a war-dance upon the perforated territory. They also occasionally tapped the ground with the tips of their wings. My intense curiosity to know the possible utility of this process was at length gratified by seeing a worm crawl, half-length, from one of the borings, when it was immediately pounced upon and devoured by one of the woodcock. Presently another worm made its appearance, and so on until the two woodcock had devoured as many as a dozen of them. Then the 'vein' seemed exhausted, and the birds took their leave. I have subsequently studied the philosophy of this method of digging bait, and have come to the conclusion that certain birds are a great deal wiser than certain bipeds without feathers. If you will take a sharpened stick and drive it into the ground a number of times, in a spot which is prolific with worms, and then tap on the ground with the stick for a few minutes, you will find that the worms will come to the surface, and that they will come up through the holes which you have made. I account for it by the supposition that the tapping of the stick somehow affects the worms the same as the patter of rain, and it is a well-known fact that worms come to the surface of the ground when it rains. The antics of the woodcocks after they had made their borings, then, were simply mimetic, and intended to delude the worms into the belief that it was raining in the upper world. The worms, being deceived, came up and were devoured. All this may seem ridiculous, but, if it is not true, will some naturalist please state how a woodcock can grasp and devour a worm when its bill is confined in a solid, tight-fitting tunnel of soil, and also how it is enabled to know the exact spot where it may sink its bill and strike a worm? And further, of all those who have seen a woodcock feeding, how many ever saw it withdraw a worm from the ground with its bill?"

 

The Colorado River of Texas.—The Colorado River of Texas is described by Prof. Robert T. Hill as presenting most interesting features, which rival in some respects those of the Colorado of the West. It begins in the dry arroyas which border the eastern scarp of the "Staked Plain," where it has cut cañons nearly a thousand feet deep in the soft Quaternary, Cretaceous, and Triassic strata, recording in their precipitousness both the aridity and the gradual elevation of the region. Between the ninety-seventh and ninety-eighth meridians it cuts through an area of Palæozoic rocks which was the land barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and the in-land sea during Mesozoic times. Within the short distance traversed by the Atlantic section of its course, it has worn through the Cretaceous sediments of the plains and now traverses nearly every terrane from the late Quaternary to the earliest Cambrian. "Perhaps nowhere else in the world can be seen a more comprehensive geologic section, a better illustration of sedimentary and igneous rocks and their relation to topographic form and economic conditions and other geologic features dependent upon structure, than in that portion of the Colorado which traverses the counties of Burnet and Travis. . . . Here the erosion of the river-basin has exposed nearly ten thousand feet of structure that would otherwise not be exposed, and every bend serves to reveal some interesting topographic or geologic fact. . . . When it is added," the author concludes, "that no man has ever explored the deep cañons, that the paleontology is almost untouched, that hardly any details of all these grand features have been recorded, one can but feel that the student of geology has here an inexhaustible field before him."