Popular Science Monthly/Volume 58/December 1900/The Progress of Science

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THE PROGRESS OF SCIENCE.

The statue of Lavoisier, shown in the frontispiece of this number, was unveiled at Paris on the 27th of July. It stands facing the Rue Tronchet, near the house in which Lavoisier dwelt. The figure, of bronze, stands upon a granite pedestal, ornamented by bas-reliefs representing Lavoisier before his colleagues at the Academy, and at work in his laboratory. M. Leygues presided at the ceremony, at which the members of the international congress of chemistry were present. In the course of the address written for the occasion M. Berthelot characterized Lavoisier's work as follows: "The labors of Lavoisier are related to a fundamental discovery from which they all spring, namely, the discovery of the chemical constitution of matter and of the difference between bodies possessing weight and imponderable forces—heat, light, electricity—the influence of which extends over these bodies. The discovery of this difference overturned the old ideas handed down from antiquity and held till the end of the last century." Lavoisier was a notable example of the excellence of scientific men in other than scientific fields of activity. He wrote a good book on education, was an efficient officer in a number of public undertakings, and was for some years 'fermier général.' His scientific work is summed up by the inscription on the pedestal of the monument: 'Fondateur de la chimie moderne.'

 

There is now evidence that yellow fever, as well as malaria, is caused by inoculation by mosquitoes which serve as the intermediate hosts of the parasites. Drs. Reed, Carroll, Agrámonte and Lazear, who were appointed last summer by the Surgeon-General to investigate infectious diseases in Cuba, have in a preliminary report of their work denied that the bacillus icteroides of Sanarelli is the cause of yellow fever. In general they have not found it present in the blood of yellow fever patients or in the organs of those who have died of the disease, and consider that when present it is a secondary invader. After these results had been reached they tested the hypothesis advanced by Dr. Carlos J. Finlay of Havana in 1881 that yellow fever is transmitted from person to person by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes which had bitten fever patients were allowed to bite eleven persons. In nine cases no evil results followed, but in two cases, Dr. Carroll himself being one, regular attacks of yellow fever followed. It is true that in these cases there was a possibility of infection from other sources, but since out of 1,400 non-immune Americans at the Columbia Barracks there were in two months only three cases and since of the three two had been bitten within five days of the commencement of their attacks by contaminated mosquitoes, the board seems justified in assigning the role of efficient cause to the mosquitoes. The positive evidence is increased by the sad history of Dr. Lazear, one of the investigating board. Dr. Lazear was one of the nine who had not suffered in the inoculation experiment just described. While working with yellow fever patients he was bitten by a mosquito, which because of the previous experiment he did not even attempt to avoid. He was bitten on September 13, and became ill on September 17 with the fever, which thereafter ran its course, ending in death. It was not demonstrated that this particular mosquito had previously bitten any yellow fever patient, but of course there was every opportunity for it to do so. Dr. Reed and his associates feel justified in the following conclusion: "The mosquito serves as the intermediate host for the parasite of yellow fever, and it is highly probable that the disease is only propagated through the bite of this insect."

 

One of the most obscure points in chemistry is the action of ferments. These have been grouped in two classes: Organized ferments like the yeast plant, or the mycoderma aceti, which oxidize alcohol to acetic acid; and the unorganized ferments, like diastase, which convert starch into sugar. In both cases a very small quantity of the ferment is capable of converting an indefinitely large amount of the fermenting substance into the fermented product, although the ferment itself does not enter as such into the reaction. Further, the action of ferments can be inhibited by heat and by the action of certain substances which act as poisons. Recent investigations seem to show that the organized ferments may owe their action to unorganized ferments which they secrete. More recently attention has been called by Bredig and von Berneck to the similarity between the action of ferments, and what has been called contact action of metals. For example, finely divided platinum can oxidize alcohol to acetic acid, and can invert cane sugar. Much more marked is the action of a solution of colloidal platinum, obtained by passing a strong current of electricity between platinum poles under water. The action of the platinum in this condition is remarkably like that of a ferment. When its effect upon hydrogen peroxide was studied it was found that one part in about 350,000,000 parts of water was sufficient to decompose hydrogen peroxide appreciably. Minute traces of certain poisons affect the reaction strongly; especially is this true of prussic acid, hydrogen sulfid and corrosive sublimate. Like many ferments the platinum solution gradually recovers from the poisonous effects of traces of potassium cyanid. It also appears that the platinum plays no chemical part in the reaction, and thus it is apparently a true ferment. It seems probable that the study of these inorganic ferments may throw much light upon the action of the very complicated organic ferments.

 

When the discovery was made some ten years ago that leguminous plants are able to assimilate the free nitrogen of the atmosphere, and thus to supply themselves with one of the necessary elements of plant food, its importance to agriculture as an economical means of maintaining soil fertility was recognized almost immediately. In working out the practical application of the discovery it was found that the micro-organisms which effect this nitrogen assimilation are not the same for all kinds of legumes, but that different kinds have their specific organisms, and furthermore that these micro-organisms are not universally disseminated through the soil. This led to inoculation of the soil, either with pure cultures of the specific bacteria or with soil from a field known to contain them in abundance. What seemed so simple theoretically has been found in practice to be only partially successful, so that the progress in its application has been somewhat delayed. A very interesting account of experiments in inoculating soils for the growth of the soy bean has recently been published by the Kansas Experiment Station as Bulletin No. 96. It is one of the most successful attempts at soil inoculation on a large scale that has been reported in this country or in Europe, where this method for promoting nitrogen assimilation was first suggested. It-was found that the Kansas soil contained none of the organisms necessary for the soy bean, and that in such soil the roots produced none of the tubercles which are intimately associated with nitrogen assimilation. A quantity of soil was obtained from the Massachusetts Experiment Station, where the soy bean had been grown for several years, and mixed in very small proportion with the Kansas soil, with the result that the soy bean plants produced root tubercles abundantly, indicating that they were drawing their nitrogen from the air. Local soil which had once been inoculated and produced a crop of soy beans was found to be suitable material for inoculating other soils; and a practical method for treating large fields has been worked out and tested through several seasons. The result is especially important as the soy bean is well suited to a wide range of country, and aside from being a valuable forage crop its growth materially enriches the soil.

 

The recent announcements of the census bureau, which have been widely circulated in the daily press, throw light on a sociological question often discussed. It has been said that the course of population is toward the great cities, that the metropolis is swallowing up the county centers and small cities. A recent prophet of the future made the England of his fiction a single great city with the rest of the country as its farm and garden. Some alarm has been caused lest this supposed tendency to centralization of population prove disastrous to nervous health and moral welfare. It now appears that such a tendency does not exist. For the eighty-one small cities, those of from 25,000 to 50,000, have increased during the last decade practically as fast as the nineteen great cities of over 200,000, namely, about 32 per cent. New York, it is true, has increased 37.8 per cent. The rate of increase of the cities above 25,000 is about 11 per cent, higher than that of the country at large, but there is no cause for sociologists to lament this difference. The inhabitants of the hundred and twenty cities under 100,000 have in many ways a superior intellectual and moral environment. They are freed from the petty annoyances of rural life, its isolation from broadening institutions and its emptiness of appeal to ambition, without losing outdoor freedom or the chance of participation in community life. They enjoy the good schools, libraries, entertainments, the municipal improvements, the services of superior professional men, etc., of great cities, without suffering from metropolitan restrictions, abuses and vices. The small city is in a measure the golden mean among dwelling-places. It would be interesting to observe on a large scale the magnitude of another great movement in population, that connected with the growth of suburbs. The natural supposition is that the rate of increase of the suburbs has been very much above the average even of the cities. In so far as the nature of our surroundings determines our make-up, such new conditions as we have in suburban life are of vital interest to the student of human nature.

 

The growth of interest in forestry, one of the youngest of the applied sciences, is attested by the establishment this year of the Yale Forest School, which confers the degree of Master of Forestry on graduates who have obtained the bachelor's degree elsewhere. At the opening of the school there were registered seven regular students, besides seventeen from other departments of the University. The residence of the late Professor O. C. Marsh is used as a school building. Lecture-rooms, a library, a laboratory and an herbarium room have been furnished with such equipment as has been found necessary for the present requirements of the school. A considerable amount of museum material has already been acquired and is being classified and arranged as rapidly as possible. The grounds about the building, ten acres in extent, are already covered with a great variety of trees and shrubs, both native and foreign, and it is the intention to plant a considerable number of varieties which are not represented. A forest nursery will be established on the grounds, but the regular forest planting will be done on waste land on the outskirts of New Haven. The New Haven Water Company has offered to the school the use of several hundred acres of woodland for the practical field work of the students, and several other owners have expressed their desire to devote their wood-lots to this purpose.

 

Such schools as the Yale Forest School and the thoroughly equipped school at Cornell under Professor Fernow's direction meet a definite, practical need, for it is an undeniable fact that the supply of lumber is being diminished beyond safety. Twenty million dollars' worth of native lumber is used annually in the manufacture of wood-pulp alone. Nearly half of the original resources of Washington Territory, the home of supposedly inexhaustible forests, have been used. Indiana once possessed 28,000 square miles covered with valuable timber. It sent timber to the East in large quantities, but now must import 82 per cent, of the lumber it uses. Lumbermen from the Lake States are now taking up timber land on the Pacific coast. Experts agree that if things had been left to take their natural course, a timber famine would have been the probable fate of the next generation or two. The Government with its forest preserves and the awakened landowner with economical methods of timber-cutting will delay and probably avert such a catastrophe, but a future scarcity in lumber is by no means the only bad result of a laissez faire policy regarding forests. The forests are the guardians of the water supply; useful water power, regular irrigation and the absence of dangerous freshets are all dependent on the proper condition of the vegetation of watersheds. It is supposed that the freshet which caused the Johnstown flood of May, 1889, was due in part to the denudation of the Mill Creek watershed, and at the request of the Johnstown Water Company this region has been examined by experts from the Division of Forestry of the United States Department of Agriculture, who have recommended that where the land has not been covered by a second growth, it be planted and that careful protection against fire be given to the whole district. When one considers that similar measures, if taken a generation ago, might have prevented the loss of $10,000,000 worth of property, to say nothing of the tremendous loss of life at the Johnstown disaster, one realizes the importance of forest preservation as a prophylactic against floods. We should teach even the children in the schools Humboldt's warning, "In felling trees growing on the sides and summits of mountains, men under all climates prepare for subsequent generations two calamities at once—a lack of firewood and a lack of water."

 

These national forest reservations are located in the western third of the country, and agitation is now in progress for similar reservations in Minnesota at the head-waters of the Mississippi and in the Southern Appalachians in the western part of North Carolina. The proposed Minnesota Park would include over 200,000 acres of water surface and over 600,000 acres of land. It would serve as a game preserve, as well as a profitable forest and an assurance to an important water supply. The only objection seems to be on the ground of the expense of purchase of Indian rights, which General Andrews, Chief Forest Warden of the State, estimates as not over $75,000 per year. $2,250,000 has this year been devoted for deepening and improving the Mississippi River. Yet this is dependent on the proper treatment of the very region in question. The passage of the bill was apparently favored by all those competent to judge of the case. It was postponed and will probably be again considered in December. Concerning the proposed Southern Appalachian reservation Prof. J. A. Holmes said at the New York meeting of the American Forestry Association: "Such a reserve, if judiciously managed, will pay a good interest on the investment, besides proving of inestimable value to the people of this country as a public resort for health and pleasure, as a lesson in practical forestry, and as a means of preserving the head-waters of important rivers."

 

Two lines of work by the Federal Government along the line of forest preservation are especially worth comment. One is the attempt to get an exact estimate of just what forests the country possesses and just what conditions they are in. This knowledge is required as a basis for all theoretical deductions, and as a starting point for all practical measures. This work is now being extensively carried out by the United States Geological Survey. The other is the attempt definitely to assist land-owners to develop wisely their forest lands and thus to spread over the country practical acquaintance with the principles of forest management. This work is in the hands of the Division of Forestry of the Department of Agriculture. In the nineteenth and twentieth reports of the Geological Survey, Mr. Gannett gives the following statistics concerning the area of woodland in the United States. Of the whole country 37 per cent, is wooded; along the Atlantic border the percentage varies from 40 to 80 per cent.; in Ohio, it is 23 per cent.; in Illinois, 18 per cent.; in Kansas, 7 per cent.; in North Dakota, 1 per cent.; in California, 22 per cent., and in Washington, 71 per cent. The areas reserved and their percentage of the total area of the State and of the wooded area of the State are as follows:

Area in Reservation. Per Cent.
of Total
Per Cent. of Wooded
State. Sq. Miles. Area. Area.
Arizona 6,285 6 27
California 13,509 9 30
Colorado 4,848 5 15
Idaho 6,264 7 18
Montana 7,885 5 19
New Mexico 4,273 3 18
Oregon 7,271 8 13
South Dakota 1,893 2 76
Utah 1,474 2 15
Washington 12,672 19 27
Wyoming 4,994 5 40
 

One of the most interesting questions concerning human nature is the degree to which special aptitudes may appear as the result of innate organic conditions quite apart from experience. It is well enough known that general mental ability is born in us if we have it at all, but we do not know so well how far any special ability, for instance in mathematics, music or sculpture, is due to inborn structural or functional peculiarities. The 'prodigies' in special fields may be instanced as evidence that such highly specialized gifts are inborn, but in some cases interest in the facts concerned and the habit of thinking about them seem to be sufficient to account for the prodigy's success. The latest mathematical prodigy, a boy who has been carefully studied by Professor Bryan and Dr. Lindley of Indiana University, seemed to owe his success to the habit of constantly thinking about numbers. Any intelligent person who would be as much engaged in the pursuit might do as well. It is hard, however, to explain in this way the cass of the musical prodigy exhibited before the International Congress of Psychologists by M. Charles Richet. The boy, then three years, seven months and seven days old, played the piano with at times remarkable skill in both technique and expression, but especially in the latter. He knows a score of pieces by heart, all of which he has learned by ear. If twenty or thirty measures are played before him he can then play them. He also, though with more difficulty, plays on the piano tunes he has heard sung. Of his inventiveness Professor Richet said: "It is certain that when Pepito starts to improvise, he is almost never at a loss, and he often finds extremely interesting melodies which appear more or less new to all those present. There is a variety and richness of tone which would perhaps be astonishing if he were a professional musician, but which in a child three years and a half old are absolutely overwhelming." In all else than music he seems to be an ordinary child. Pepito, according to his mother's narrative, was a good player from the start. His first performance was to play throughout a piece which she had played a number of times. This he did absolutely independently of any teaching whatever. Only a special anatomical basis for musical ability seems competent to explain a case like this.

 

Among recent events of scientific interest, we note the following: Dr. Henry S. Pritchett, superintendent of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, was inaugurated as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on October 24.—Sir Michael Foster has been reelected a member of the British Parliament, representing the University of London.—Cambridge University has conferred the degree of Doctor of Science on Professor S. P. Langley, director of the Smithsonian Institution.—Professor George F. Barker, for twenty-eight years professor of physics in the University of Pennsylvania, and Professor F. H. Bonney, for thirty-three years professor of geology in University College, London, have retired.—A committee has been appointed to erect a memorial to the late Spencer F. Baird at Wood's Holl. Subscriptions may be sent to the Hon. E. G. Blackford, Fulton Market, New York City.—The Rumford Committee of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has voted a grant of $200 to Mr. C. E. Mendenhall of Williams College for the furtherance of his investigations on a hollow bolometer, and a grant of $500 to Professor George E. Hale of the Yerkes Observatory in furtherance of his researches in connection with the application of the radiometer and a study of the infra-red spectrum of the chromosphere.—Professor Ernst Haeckel is at present in Java, seeking for further remains of Pithecanthropus erectus.—Dr. Robert Koch has returned to Berlin after fifteen months spent in the study of malaria, chiefly in the German colonies.—Harvard Observatory has sent an expedition to Kingston, Jamaica, to observe the planet Eros in its approaching opposition.—Mr. E. P. Baldwin is planning an expedition to the North Polar regions, the expenses of which will be defrayed by Mr. Ziegler, of New York City.—The New York Board of Health is building, at a cost of $20,000, a laboratory to be wholly devoted to the study of the bubonic plague.—The great Serpent Mound of Ohio, which has long been a subject of study and research for American archeologists, has been given by the Harvard Corporation to the Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society.—The fine new lecture hall of the American Museum of Natural History was opened with appropriate exercises on Tuesday, October 30. At the same time the new anthropological collections were exhibited.—The new National Museum at Munich, containing the collection of Bavarian antiquities, has been opened, and the valuable collections can be viewed to much better advantage than hitherto. The building contains more than a hundred rooms and has been erected at a cost of about $1,000,000.—The Authors' Catalogue of the British Museum, containing four hundered large volumes and numerous supplements, has now been completed. The compilation of the catalogue has occupied twenty years and cost $200,000. A subject-catalogue is now in course of preparation.—The Russian Government has decided to adopt the metric system of weights and measures, and the ministry of finance is now engaged in considering the time and manner of introducing this reform.