Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/December 1896/Fragments of Science

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Fragments of Science.

Mental Overstrain in Education.—In a recent address before the British Medical Association, under the above title, Dr. G. E. Shuttleworth called attention to some of the harmful results caused by the undiscriminating educational methods of the public schools. He says: "With some so-called educationalists, I fear the idea still lingers that it" (education) "consists of cramming a mind with as much of as many subjects as possible. . . . A smattering of philology, however, will serve to show that the word ‘education’ means not putting in, but drawing out, and, bearing in mind the physiological interdependence of bodily and mental development, we may say that true education consists in processes of training which will produce in a given individual the most favorable evolution possible of all the faculties both of body and mind. A rational educational system will of course recognize the fact that all children are not cast in the same mold; that there are inherent, often inherited, differences in each pupil's powers, and that, to obtain the best results, instruction must be adapted to idiosyncrasies and proportioned to varying capacities. . . . From the medical standpoint we shall reply in the affirmative to the query of Plato: ‘Is not that the best education which gives to the mind and to the body all the force, all the beauty, and all the perfection of which they are capable?’ Overpressure in education may in brief be described as a neglect of the principles just set forth—a neglect which can not fail to lead to mental overstrain. Thus a cast-iron code, imposing for each year of age a definite standard of acquirement, heedless of the varying capacities of children, could not fail to produce it. A disregard of physical conditions underlying mental evolution, and of critical epochs of development (especially in the female sex), affecting capacity for exertion, is another efficient cause, and the undue excitation of the unstable nerve cells of a child of neurotic heredity, to such a pitch of activity as might be harmless in a normal child, will, in the case of the former, be apt to constitute overstrain. Overpressure, indeed, is not an absolute quantity, but has to be estimated in relation to the personal factor in each case. It may, therefore, be defined in terms of educational work as that amount which in a given case is likely to produce excessive strain of the physical or mental system, or both. . . . It has been well remarked that puberty with girls is a period of profound nervous and neuro-psychological import. . . . Many a weak woman could, if she only knew, trace back her weakness to an overstrain at this period of life. There is too often a tendency to subject to serious and exhausting study girls of from twelve to fifteen years of age just at the epoch when they should have the minimum of schoolroom work and the maximum of outdoor exercise and recreation. . . . In these three points, then—(1) excessive hours of study, especially during spurts of growth and development, (2) deficiency of systematic outdoor exercise and recreation, and (3) disregard of physiological functions differentiating the capacity for work at certain times of girls as compared with boys—I think the high-school system needs amendment."

Effects of Labor Legislation.—The significance and tendencies of labor legislation are well summed up by Mr. S. N. D. North in his essay on Factory Legislation in New England, when he says that the whole subject has, in recent years, "shown the unhappy signs of a degeneration into a mere trial of strength between the employing classes and the organized trades-unionism of the operative classes. It has become the popular method of exploiting the assumed antagonism between capital and labor"; and the one certain result of the system as now pursued must necessarily be a constant increase in the intensity of that antagonism. There are also other dangers in such legislation, which the author only refers to. "The public at large has no apprehension of the present tendencies of this legislation. The lawmakers who pass these laws seem to have no well formed conception of their true scope, function, effects, and limitations. There is apparent no realization anywhere of the fact that they have profoundly modified not only the conditions of manufacturing, but the whole relationship between the State and the citizen engaged in business under its laws. There is underlying them a new doctrine of paternalism more extreme and more excessive than has shown itself in any other phase of democratic government; and the ultimate consequences of its indefinite development are beyond the reach of human ken." A. West Virginia court has described them as laws which "assume that every employer is a knave and every employed man an imbecile. . . . There has never been any intelligent and comprehensive study by or in behalf of the State into the practical and economic effects of these laws; and there exists no exact knowledge on the part of those who make them whether they have not already been carried so far as to defeat the objects they are intended to promote."

The Plague of the Mongoose.—The mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon) was introduced into the West Indies several years ago as a remedy against the gray rats. It made way with the rats, partly, but not entirely, and still keeps them from multiplying, but has itself become a greater pest. It has nearly exterminated poultry and birds from the islands, is very destructive of turtles' eggs, and is a terror to young pigs, lambs, and kids; it devours all sorts of fruits, sugar cane, fish, wild game, lizards, snakes, crabs, and even extends its depredations to the provisions in the house. One or two species which the farmers valued as vermin-killers have been exterminated by them; consequently ticks are flourishing and increasing fast. The mongooses are exceedingly prolific, bringing forth five or six young at a litter—sometimes ten or twelve—and six or eight litters a year. They live in the hollows of trees and in old walls. They are very active and very intelligent, but their intelligence and activity seem to work always to the harm of the farmers and housekeepers. A merchant observed a venerable old mongoose in his warehouse, and set a trap for it. He put a hen's egg in a position to be well seen as bait, and under it concealed a spring trap, right in the animal's road. The mongoose burrowed under the trap, threw it out of gear, and managed so that the egg rolled down to him. Yet some mongooses are taken in traps, but not one in twenty of them are females. The females are too busy taking care of their families to be running round; and it is supposed that the males in their depredations, besides satisfying their own wants, provide for those of their mates at home.

The Sympsychograph.—The Revue Scientifique concludes a summary of Prof. Jordan's remarkable account of the sympsychograph in the September number of the Monthly with the remarks: "All this is very ingeniously constructed—text and photograph—and falls in no way short in logic and reasoning of the habitual lucubrations of the spirits: it is quite as plausible as a hundred stories that have been told to us in all seriousness. The only difference is that Mr. Jordan has been amusing himself, and his whole account is pure invention. The ‘astral cat’ exists only in his imagination, as the ‘astral body’ of the spirits is also undoubtedly imaginary; but Mr. Jordan knows this, while the spiritualists do not recognize it. As a satire the story is very amusing; but it is certain that some persons will take it seriously, and this will be not the least amusing thing about it."

The Fascination of Cycling.—In the effort to account for the absorbing and enduring pleasure of bicycling, which induces men and women to spin for hours every day over the same roads, with no apparent diminution of their enjoyment, M. Ph. Tissier adduces associations of ideas corresponding with the frequent and quick changes of attitude to which the wheelman is subject. There is a limit, however, to these changes of position, and it is not so far off but that they will become tiresome long before the bicyclist becomes in fact tired of wheeling. M. Ch. du Pasquier, in the Revue Scientifique, looks for the origin of the bicyclist's delight in the pleasure of motion, augmented by the rider's sense of control and mastery of the instrument and of himself. The experiments of Feré have proved that motion introduces very real effects into our organisms. It gives a kind of new force, and increases the effect of an excitant, in proportions bearing an approximate relation to its rapidity. This force-giving action explains many other things not otherwise accounted for—such as the pleasure of riding rapidly in a carriage, of getting up into a high place, and the delight we take in games of strength and skill, in agile exercises, wrestling, racing, combats, etc. The activity begotten of the exercise operates as a further stimulant; and so the rider goes on, with the breezes fanning his cheeks, his whole organization, as Gratiolet observes, "singing in various tones a hymn of satisfaction and joy," till he is in danger of exhaustion before he realizes that he is becoming tired. In this last condition lies the great danger of excessive cycling, which can not be too carefully guarded against. M. du Pasquier finds a serious defect in cycling in its monotonous character. It is far excelled, in his opinion, in variety of motions and tensions by horseback riding, tennis, and fencing, which, besides bringing all the muscles of the body into play, enforce the participation of the mind—of attention, judgment, and decision. The movement in cycling is stupidly regulated by the mechanism, which permits no further extension or flexion of the limbs or the body; the motions are all alike in infinite repetitions, at least so long as the "spin" endures. It follows that the mental action can not be very elastic and the mental images will not be lively or varied. The impressions the cyclist receives are correspondingly monotonous. Those thoughts can not produce anything of value which are occupied with the road that has been passed over, with the miles that are yet to be covered, and the time when the rider will get to his destination; which are intent on keeping the record he has made, or upon creating a new one. Feré's remark bears upon this point that "the effect of systematized excitation on a small number of ideas is always bad," and that it is not healthy for the mind to be inactive in other directions than that on which it is most intently bent. So much for "excess" in bicycling; for devotion to the machine for itself; for "scorching." But of moderate use of the machine, of its employment as an aid to other exercises and recreations, MM. Tissier and Du Pasquier would probably have, certainly ought to have, quite other views.

Cement as a Fire-proof Covering.—Mr. J. S. Dobie has recently published the results of a number of tests showing the effect of heat on cements. Tests were made upon pure briquettes and briquettes made up of sand and cement in various proportions. The briquettes were heated in a small assay furnace. The first thing noticed on removal from the furnace was a loss of weight, and the pure cement briquettes almost invariably showed extensive cracks. The loss in weight is due to the driving out of the water of crystallization, hardened cement consisting of hydrated crystals of aluminum and calcium silicate. After removal from the furnace, the briquettes were subjected to various tests, and in every case where the water of crystallization had been approximately all driven off the briquettes were unable to resist any load whatever. A high temperature was not necessary to destroy the strength of the cement. The lowest heat which could be generated by the furnace, considerably below red heat, was found to be as destructive as the highest temperature. The conclusions arrived at by Mr. Dobie were: 1. That while there is no doubt that a covering of Portland cement concrete will afford some protection to a metal column or girder, still there appears to be no doubt that the concrete itself will be ruined by the action of the fire, and will have to be removed as soon as the fire is subdued. 2. The concrete covering, if heated, will not stand the action of water. In a case of fire, when the hose is turned on, the water strikes the cement covering, probably red hot, and immediately cracks it off, leaving the ironwork bare. 3. In calculating for the design of the columns and girders, and especially for floors, no allowance should be made for the strength of the concrete, and the cement covering should be considered as so much extra load on the system. 4. That in a fireproof building floors should never be constructed of slabs of cement forming short spans or arches from girder to girder, without any support, and that these experiments indicate that the value of concrete as a fire-protecting material has been greatly overestimated, and that disastrous results may follow, from confidence in a building protected with such material.

Chinese Medicine.—The medicine of the Chinese is described by M. Paul d'Enjoy as being more serious, more widely extended, and further removed from superstitious practices than that of the other cognate peoples of the far East. The doctors concoct and sell their remedies, as well as prescribe them, provide themselves with luxurious shops, and use all the tricks of the trade to make their parcels attractive. Many of their remedies are administered in large, badly tasting pills, only slightly mollified in their flavor by licorice. These pills are inclosed in capsules of wax as large as pigeons' eggs, which preserve the compound from contact with the air, and are broken when the remedy is taken. Special preparations are sent out from the large shops of the principal commercial centers. Among the most popular of the specialties are the little brick-red cholera pills, composed of mangosteen bark and various tropical essences, such as santal, eaglewood, and calumba. The Dau-nhu-y is a medicinal oil which produces excellent effects in headaches, and generally incases of brain weariness of every kind. It is rubbed on the temples, and is inhaled by strong breathing, after having been rubbed upon the nostrils. Relief is obtained through the cold which its evaporation quickly produces. The basis of the preparation is camphor; and, as a whole, its effect may be compared to that of the headache pencils familiar in our drug stores. Chinese medicine is chiefly based on plants, and is taught in books which are often very ancient. In his practice the doctor strictly follows the methods of the master by whom he has been taught. With a very grave face, his eyes protected by large spectacles of thick glass, the old physician feels the pulse of his patient, and never fails to make him show his tongue. Next he examines his eyes, and asks a series of questions, the answers to which will help him out in his diagnosis. Then he writes his prescription on a sheet of rice paper and hands it to his pupil, who proceeds to compound it. Generally the prescription is made from the directions in some book, which are simply referred to by name or number. The pupil goes to the book for the directions. The seeds, herbs, leaves, and stems, the essences of which are to be combined to form the remedy, are generally weighed out or measured, and given to the patients with directions to boil them at home with a prescribed quantity of drinking water to a measure which is exactly indicated: "Put all these plants into an earthenware pot with a large glass of water and boil them over a bright fire down to a teacupful; then strain carefully and drink hot." The remedies are all taken in bed, and rest, or sleep, if possible, is recommended The potions as administered have very powerful effects.

Talismans.—The word talisman a corrupted Arabic term, which has come to us through the Moors and France—means properly a figure or thing endowed with magical powers, which enables its possessor to summon supernatural beings to his aid, whether to defend him in a hard strait or to realize some great wish. The existence of such things is an Arab belief probably older than Mohammedanism, and has for its origin a profound Semitic belief in created beings of a much higher class than man, who might, under certain persuasion or compulsion, be induced to give him the aid of their loftier prerogatives. The superstition of talismans has been made familiar by the Arabian Nights, is probably as wide as the world, and lingers still, even among the cultivated classes of Europe, to an extraordinary extent. It is doubtful "if there is a dynasty in the West which does not possess some article—usually a jewel or a sword—which the vulgar believe to be its ‘luck’ or source of fortune, and which the owners themselves, while theoretically rejecting the belief as nonsense, would be vexed to the very heart to lose. . . . The relation of the picture, usually the founder's portrait, and the sword to the founders of the house has, indeed, passed into literature, and is one of the few bits of supernatural machinery which do not excite the ridicule of modern readers." Seeking its mental origin, a writer in the London Spectator finds that it is utterly opposed to the spirit of all the greater creeds, which, except perhaps Hinduism, make fortune dependent on conduct or the favor of the Almighty, or both. "There is, no doubt, in Hinduism a lurking idea, to which a profound student of the East like Sir Alfred Lyall attributes great importance, that any inanimate thing which is exceedingly odd or separate must be in some sense divine. The notion is that Nature produces only the usual, and that everything unusual must be the product of special interference from the creating power, and therefore possess some portion of the divine spirit, or at least some influence emanating from an unusual source." This does not account, however, for the prevalence of the idea in Europe and among people of a skeptical turn. There is nothing like the notion of consecration connected with the talisman—it may even be supposed to have come from the devil—nor is there anything in the idea akin to astrology. The writer we have cited suggests that the origin sought for may lie in men's "lingering belief in Destiny as a force apart from Providence, a power having its origin, not in design, but in the very nature of things. . . . If a man thus believing that Destiny pursues him for good or evil once admits the idea, however irrational, that an inanimate substance is connected with his destiny, the substance becomes the ‘talisman’ of which we have been speaking, and he can not endure either to lose it or to see it injured. His brain may reject the superstition with utter scorn, he may even be angry with himself for giving it five minutes' attention, but an inner faith in it if we may so desecrate the word ‘faith’—as strong as the faith of some men in omens, forbids him to disregard the ‘talisman.’ The faith again would, of course, like the faith in omens, be greatly strengthened by accidental coincidences, but it survives the want of them, and sometimes, we suspect, the occurrence of events entirely at variance with the secret belief."

Science-Teaching in Secondary Schools.—The summaries of a series of conferences concerning teaching in secondary schools held in 1893 under the direction of the National Council of Education, and published in the last report of the United States Commissioner of that department, contain valuable suggestions on the teaching of mathematics and the sciences. The conferences consisted each of ten members, selected on account of their scholarship and experience, and discussed the questions submitted to them with much thoroughness. The conference on mathematics recommends that the course in arithmetic be at once abridged by omitting the subjects which perplex and exhaust the pupil without contributing valuably to his mental discipline, and enriched by a greater number of exercises in simple calculation and in the solution of concrete problems; that instruction in concrete geometry, with numerous exercises, be given in connection with drawing; and that in demonstrative geometry, as well as in all mathematical teaching, great stress be laid on accuracy of statement and elegance of form, as well as on clear and rigorous reasoning. In physics, chemistry, and astronomy the conference urges that the study of simple natural phenomena be introduced into elementary schools, and that at least one period a day from the first year of the primary school should be given to such study; emphasizes the necessity of a large proportion of laboratory work in the study of physics and chemistry, and advocates the keeping of laboratory note-books by the pupils, and the use of such note-books as part of the test for admission to college. More work, it is held, is required of the teacher to give good instruction in the sciences than to give good instruction in mathematics or the languages. The conference on natural history advises that the study of botany and zoology be introduced into the primary school course, and be pursued steadily, with not less than two periods a week, throughout the whole course below the high school. In the early lessons no text-book should be used, but the study should be constantly associated with the study of literature, language, and drawing. Physiology should be postponed till the later years of the high school, and in the high school some branch of natural history proper should be pursued every day throughout at least one year. The value of laboratory work and of the cultivation of exact, elegant expression in description is again insisted upon. The most novel suggestions are given in connection with the teaching of geography, of which the conference takes a far more comprehensive view than the usual one, and which it evidently regards as including the whole physical environment of man, and as requiring a knowledge of many of the elementary facts of the other subjects. Meteorology may be taught as an observational study in the earliest years of the grammar school.

Hereditary Crime.—An interesting investigation is reported by Prof. Pellmann, of Bonn University (Germany). He has made a special study of hereditary drunkenness, which, in the case of a certain Frau Ada Jurke, he followed through several generations. She was born in 1740, and was a drunkard, tramp, and thief for the last forty years of her life, which ended in 1800. Her descendants numbered 834, of whom 709 have been traced in local records from youth to death. Of the 709, 106 were born out of wedlock. There were 142 beggars and 64 more who lived upon charity. Of the women, 181 led disreputable lives. There were in this family 76 convicts, 7 of whom were sentenced for murder. Prof. Pellmann says that in seventy-five years this one family rolled up a bill in the almshouses, trial courts, prisons, and correctional institutions of $1,-250,000. With such a record before it, the state seems justified in adopting measures for preventing the breeding of such characters.

The Newspaper and Periodical Industry.—A recent article in the Hartford Times gives some interesting semi-statistical figures regarding the newspaper industry in the United States. It estimates that there are about 2,100 daily and over 1,100 weekly newspapers and periodicals published in the United States, besides the hundreds of monthly magazines, reviews, and trade journals. "It is probably a low estimate to say that there are 100,000 men and women occupied in their production. Adding to these figures the people employed in the various printing establishments and publishing houses, we should have a total of about 250,000, and including those dependent on them, probably more than a million of the population who are thus supported. Nearly every newspaper has one or more presses, costing thousands of dollars each; $50,000,000 would not begin to pay for the printing presses now in operation in the United States. We are within bounds in estimating the daily issues of the newspapers in the United States at more than 20,000,000 copies. If the publishers receive on the average as much as five dollars per year for their circulation from each subscriber or patron, we have more than $100,000,000 paid in from that source. Giving the weeklies an average of only 2,000, and we have nearly 25,000,000 subscribers to them, and at the average price of one dollar there is $25,000,000 more. We should think the total receipts from sales and subscriptions over rather than under $150,000,000. Now we come to the matter of advertising, which is probably nearly twice the amount paid in subscriptions—nearer $300,000,000 than $200,000,000. If it is only $250,000,000, we have an aggregate of $400,000,000 passing over the counters of the newspaper orifices of the country each year."