Popular Science Monthly/Volume 58/January 1901/The Progress of Science

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

THE PROGRESS OF SCIENCE.

We again direct attention to the bills before Congress for the establishment of the National Standardizing Bureau, the functions of which shall consist in the custody of the standards used in scientific investigations, engineering and commerce; the construction, when necessary, of such standards, their multiples and submultiples; the testing and calibration of such standards and standard measuring apparatus; the solution of problems arising in connection with standards and the determination of physical constants and the properties of materials, when such data are of great importance and are not to be obtained of sufficient accuracy elsewhere. The establishment of a National Physical Laboratory has been under discussion in this country for almost twenty years, and although the urgent need of such an institution has been generally recognized, the spasmodic efforts in that direction have heretofore either lacked sufficient support from those most vitally concerned or have not taken into account existing conditions. The bill submitted last spring by the Secretary of the Treasury was evidently framed after most careful consideration of the question from its legislative as well as from its scientific and technical aspects. It is believed that its scope is as broad as could be reasonably expected at present, even by the scientific interests, and while the bureau is to be placed under a director having, as is proper, full control of its administration, there is also provided a board of visitors, consisting of five members prominent in the various interests involved, and not in the employ of the Government, the board serving thus in a supervisory capacity, and at the same time eliminating by its high standing, and by its close relationship to the technical and scientific bodies of the country, the effect of 'political influence' in the administration of the bureau.

 

The prospects for favorable action by Congress seem most promising owing t*> the hearty cooperation of all interested, the measure having received the indorsement of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, the Congress of American Physicians and Surgeons, the National Electric Light Association and other prominent organizations. It has also been indorsed by the scientific and technical bureaus of the Government, by institutions of higher learning through members of their scientific and engineering faculties, and by manufacturers of scientific apparatus, and it has appealed especially to the electrical fraternity. Although introduced towards the close of the last session, the bill was favorably reported to the House by the unanimous vote of the Committee on Coinage, Weights and Measures. The Senate bill is now before the Committee on Commerce, which, it is hoped, will repeat the action of the House Committee. The immediate passage of the measure cannot be too strongly urged, even with due regard to the great volume of other important business awaiting action during the present short session, especially as the bill could be disposed of in a very short time, containing, as it does, nothing: which could possibly provoke partisan discussion.

 

The importance of the National Physical Laboratory is now universally recognized. Germany attributes its derful strides in the manufacture and export of scientific apparatus principally to the splendid work of the Imperial Physico-Technical Institute. The recognition of this fact on the part of English manufacturers was one of the most potent influences which last year induced Parliament to provide for the establishment of a similar bureau. Russia, about to adopt the metric system, has also established a Central Chamber of Weights and Measures, with Professor Mendelejeff at its head. At the International Congress of Physicists, held at Paris last summer, Professor Pellat read a paper on the National Physical Laboratory as a factor in the industrial development of a country, which created such a strong impression that a motion was unanimously passed in favor of the establishment of such institutions in all countries not already provided therewith. The United States, far in the van in so many respects, cannot afford to lag behind in a matter of such vital and universally recognized importance.

 

That the United States is now ready to take a place beside Germany in the production of scientific instruments is demonstrated by what has already been accomplished in the case of astronomy. In proof of this statement we may refer to the recently-issued catalogue from the works of Messrs. Warner & Swasey, at Cleveland, Ohio. This is a tangible witness that the United States is, in respect of the making of astronomical instruments of all sorts, quite out of the leading strings of the Old World. The work here exhibited is strictly of the first class. The instruments are, in the first place, designed so as to fit the uses to which they are to be put, not only in their general form, but also in their details. The execution of the mechanical work is also of the very highest quality. Lastly, we note the very significant fact that the designs of the instruments are, in a high degree, elegant and artistic. It is a far cry from the stone-adze of the paleolithic man to the Ferrera blade; and the evolution carries a lesson with it. Weapons and tools must first of all be fitted to their uses. Their design must be appropriate to the desired end. After the end is plainly comprehended improvements are made in the mechanical processes of manufacture. Last of all it is the desire of the artisan to become an artist— to make his work beautiful. The evolution of the weapon and of the tool follows laws which govern that of the scientific instrument also. Long centuries elapsed between the quadrants of Alexandria, Samarkand and Uraniborg, and the elegant designs of the instruments of the great observatory of Pulkowa. It seemed that almost the last word had been said when Struve and Repsold installed their joint productions in the Imperial Observatory, lavishly endowed by the Russian Emperor. It is highly significant, then, to find their work surpassed in a distant country, across the ocean—in the country that hardly possessed an astronomical establishment of any sort when Pulkowa was founded. And it is gratifying and startling to note that two New England mechanics without hereditary training, advised by our own astronomers, have excelled the work of the famous house of Repsold, now in its third generation, advised and counseled, as it has been, by the most skilled astronomers of Europe.

 

A study of the catalogue in question will show that in all respects—in general design, in detail and in artistic beauty—instruments now made in this country are superior to any made in the world. The book referred to is entirely composed of plates, showing equatorial mountings, micrometers, chronographs, transits, zenith telescopes, alt-azimuths, meridian-circles and dividing-engines made at Cleveland; and of views of observatories in various parts of the w r orld furnished with instruments or domes from the same works. The observations made by some of the instruments referred to at the United States Naval Observatory, at the Lick, Yerkes, Flower, Dudley and other establishments, are the best evidence of success. This book marks an epoch in the history of practical astronomy in America and has more than a passing value. A country that has produced the object-glasses of the Clarks and of Brashear, the sextant of Godfray, the zenith-telescope of Talcott, the chronograph of the Bonds, the break-circuit chronometer of Winlock, the diffractiongratings of Rutherfurd and of Rowland, the mountings of Warner and Swasey—to say nothing of many minor inventions and devices—has already taken the highest place in one important field. Who can doubt that the next century will see a corresponding progress in other branches of astronomy? The oldest science may yet find its chief center in the youngest country.

 

The annual report of the Secretary of Agriculture has come to be regarded as of special interest to men of science, inasmuch as it is devoted very largely to a resume of the scientific investigation which is being carried on under his direction. The high appreciation which Secretary Wilson has of the economic value of investigation along lines related to agriculture is evidenced by his cordial support of such work, and the spirit of inquiry which he has inspired throughout the Department. His practical experience as a farmer and his active connection with experiment-station work before coming to the Department have made him quick to see the application of a new discovery and have enabled him in many instances to suggest new lines of inquiry. The result has been a wider appreciation of the department as an institution for research, and the securing of greatly increased financial support from Congress for its development along this line. It is now recognized by those familiar with it as being one of the largest and best equipped institutions for organized research in this country, and in the special lines in which it is engaged it occupies a leading position. Some of the newer features which Secretary Wilson mentions are experiments in plant breeding, directed toward the production of hardier orange hybrids for the Southern States and corn of earlier maturity and more resistant to drought and smut; studies of the true cause of the fermentation of tobacco in curing, which have suggested important modifications of the old method of handling; experiments in growing Sumatra tobacco in the Connecticut Valley, with the aid of shade, and the Cuban types of cigar-filler in Texas, the indications for the success of both of which are now considered very promising; the extensive preparation and testing of serums for combating hog cholera and tetanus or lockjaw, and of vaccine for the disease known as blackleg; field and laboratory studies of plants supposed to be poisonous to sheep on the Western ranges, to determine the actual causes of the heavy losses of stock, and to find remedies for poisoned animals: and the investigation of a number of the more troublesome plant diseases, among them diseases of the sugar beet, which are reported to have caused a loss of over two million dollars in California.

 

The Department's policy of sending explorers to various parts of the world to search out new plants or varieties likely to prove valuable in this country has already resulted in a long list of promising introductions, including especially the Kiushu rice from Japan, which, it is believed, will insure the success of the rice industry in this country, and varieties of wheat from Russia, Hungary and Australia, which are superior in milling qualities, resistance to rust and yield. The successful introduction into California of the insect which fertilizes the flowers of the Smyrna fig, resulting the past season in the production of six tons of these figs of the highest grade of excellence, promises the development of another important industry. Among the larger operations in the field the studies of the use and economy of irrigation waters have attracted widespread attention throughout the irrigated region, and have indicated that there is great opportunity for improvement in the methods and use of water. The result has been a great desire for an accurate and complete showing of facts, on which permanent improvement alone can be based; and wherever the investigations have been undertaken, private individuals and local authorities have lent their hearty cooperation. The preparation of 'working plans' for forest owners, to guide them in caring for and cutting off their forests in a more systematic manner, has proved so popular that the demands last year exceeded the resources of the Division of Forestry. Requests for these plans cover over fifty million acres of forest, and come from private owners, large consumers of timber for manufacturing purposes and public custodians. The Secretary points out the encouraging fact that public interest in forestry is at present not only keener and more widespread than at any time heretofore but 'is growing with a rapidity altogether without precedent.' Quite large increases in appropriation for these irrigation investigations and lines of forestry work are recommended, as well as for soil surveys with reference to the distribution of alkali in the West, location of tobacco soils and other questions. Cooperation with the agricultural experiment stations has now become a prominent feature of the department work, and is heartily endorsed. Congress has recognized this in recent years by giving funds for special investigations to be carried on in cooperation with the stations. This has naturally brought the Department into much closer relations with the stations, and has tended to secure greater stability for the operations of the stations and an increased measure of influence with their own constituents. Not only is such cooperation in the interests of economy, but it strengthens the efficiency of both the Department and the stations as organizations for the improvement of agriculture. As a result of the investigations made the past year of the agricultural conditions in Hawaii and Porto Rico, the Secretary recommends the establishment of experiment stations in these islands.

 

The growing interest in the work of the National Department of Agriculture is evidenced by the rapidly increasing demand for its publications. Last year three hundred and twenty new publications were issued, and the number of copies printed was considerably over seven million. This was far in excess of any previous year, both in number of publications and total edition. Notwithstanding this fact, the Department was obliged to refuse many applicants for its bulletins and reports, the number of refusals being ten times more numerous than six years ago, when the total edition was only half that of the past year. In addition to these more technical publications, one hundred and eight farmers' bulletins, including reprints, were issued, aggregating two and a third million copies. This furnishes some idea of the enormous activity of the Department in the diffusion of knowledge. But with the growth of its investigations and the consequent increase of material for publication, Secretary Wilson shows that there has not been a commensurate increase in the appropriation for printing, which has now become inadequate to the prompt diffusion of the information acquired. He accordingly requests a material increase in the printing fund for another year, but he questions whether, without some change in the present system of distributing publications, it will be possible to maintain a supply equal to the demand. The distribution has been restricted in several ways within recent years, and mailing lists have been kept revised to prevent waste. In the interest of the greatest usefulness of the Department to applied science and to its constituents, the policy should, if possible, remain sufficiently liberal to provide copies to such persons as are especially interested in the publications, and make application for them. The problem is undoubtedly a perplexing one, and unless Congress makes liberal additions to the printing fund, is likely to prove more troublesome with succeeding years.

 

The present organization of the Department of Agriculture is for the most part one of divisions quite independent of each other in their operations. These are not generally grouped into bureaus, as is the case in other departments of the Government, but each is responsible directly to the Secretary of Agriculture. The lines of work of different divisions very naturally overlap, and as new lines are taken up, troublesome questions arise as to their assignment. The condition is one which calls for close cooperation along the broadest lines possible, but the segregation which has resulted from the multiplication of divisions has not conduced to this. The Secretary believes that the best interests of the Department now demand aggregation, rather than segregation, and that the time has come to bring together the related lines of work. In accordance with this policy he announces the affiliation of four divisions, closely allied by the nature of their work, under the title of Office of Plant Industry, with a director in charge. How far anything like a reorganization of the Department will be carried is at present uncertain, but it is felt that the movement is in the direction of progress, and will almost inevitably be extended sooner or later. In point of location, furthermore, the scientific divisions are widely separated, the laboratories being for the most part in separate rented buildings, removed some distance from the executive offices and the library. These buildings are regarded as temporary makeshifts, and are wholly inadequate to the present needs, several of them being dwelling houses, with small, poorly-lighted rooms. The Secretary makes a strong plea for a laboratory building, and submits plans for a fire-proof structure costing approximately $200,000. He points out that the items of rent and other expenses connected with the present laboratory quarters amount to about $10,000 a year, and that the Department is far behind many State institutions in its laboratory facilities. The excellent equipment which is being brought together in these laboratories, the extensive collections and the valuable records of investigation, are jeopardized by their present location. It seems eminently fitting that the National Department of Agriculture should be provided with the very best facilities for the important and far-reaching work which it is conducting.

 

The account of the extensive and varied operations of the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, as contained in the annual report of the Commissioner for 1900, shows a growth, as remarkable as it was unforeseen, during the three decades that have elapsed since Professor Baird was appointed "to prosecute investigations with a view of ascertaining what diminution in the number of food-fishes of the coast and the lakes of the United States has taken place, to what causes the same is due, and what protective, prohibitory or precautionary measures should be adopted." A summary by the Commissioner of the work of the different divisions of the service is followed by detailed accounts of the propagation and distribution of food-fishes, the biological investigations, the collection of statistics of the commercial fisheries, the study of the methods of the fisheries, the inspection of the fur-seal rookeries of the Pribilof Islands, and the operations of the vessels, including a narrative of the recent South Sea expedition of the Albatross under Mr. Agassiz. The scientific investigations conducted in the field, on the vessels and in the laboratories pertain to almost every phase of aquatic biology. Much of the biological work is naturally and necessarily addressed to practical questions connected with the economic fisheries and fish-culture, but facilities are freely afforded for the prosecution of purely scientific studies; and it may be noted that an unusually large number of able investigators have availed themselves of the advantages which the laboratories of the Commission afford. Among the recent acts of Congress pertaining to the scientific work have been the appropriation of a liberal sum for special experiments and investigations regarding the clam and lobster; the establishment of a new marine laboratory at Beaufort, North Carolina, and the creation of the position of fish pathologist.

 

The results of the early investigations by the Commission soon led to the institution of artificial propagation as the most feasible and effective form of aid that could be rendered by the Federal Government for the maintenance of the food-fish supply; and for many years fish-culture has been the leading branch of the Commission's work. Thirty-five hatching stations in twenty-five States were operated in 1900, and new hatcheries are established at nearly every session of Congress. The output of young and adult fishes reached the extraordinary number of 1,164,000,000, which represent practically all the important food and game fishes of our rivers and lakes, and several marine species, those receiving most attention being the shad, the salmons of both coasts, the various trouts, the whitefish, the walleyed pike, the black basses, the cod, the winter flounder and the lobster. The important feature of this work is that a very large proportion of the ova which are handled, being taken from fish that have been caught for market, would have been lost but for the Commission's efforts; in the year covered by the report, fully nine-tenths of the output were from this source. The Commission is one of the most popular of the Government bureaus, and its popularity will undoubtedly increase as the objects, methods, limitations and results of its work become more generally known.

 

Students of economics are familiar with the apparently far-fetched hypothesis that periods of economic crises or hard times may be related to the fluctuations of the sun-spots. There is now reason to believe that the hypothesis is not a rash guess based on some specious coincidences. Sir Norman Lockyer and Dr. W. J. S. Lockyer have investigated the connection between sunspots and the weather, and claim, in a paper read before the Royal Society on November 22, that increased and decreased areas of the spots on the sun may be indicative of fluctuations in the heat it gives out and that the solar conditions they indicate are approximately contemporaneous with pulses of greater rainfall. The Lockyers found that when the area of spots was greatest the unknown lines of the spectra of the sunspots were widened; when the area was least the known lines were widened. From this they infer that a maximum area of sun-spots goes with a great increase of temperature. They thus find periodic changes of solar temperature, a maximum being followed by a mean condition, and that by a minimum. The years 1881, 1886-7 and 1892, for instance, would be, according to these spectrum records, years of mean temperature condition. The fluctuations in rainfall in India, Mauritius, Egypt and elsewhere were then compared with the spectrum records. Heavy rains generally occurred in India in the year following the mean condition, that is in dates near but somewhat earlier than the maxima and minima for sun-spots. The fall of snow followed the same rule. Between these pulses of great rainfall there are periods of drought, which correspond to the intervals between the maxima and minima of solar temperature indicated by the fluctuations in the spots. All the Indian famines since 1836 have occurred in such intervals, if we assume that maxima have appeared every eleven years. The famines of 1836, 1847, 1860, 1868-69, 1880 and 1890-92 fit almost exactly with the central points or mean conditions between minima and maxima which occurred in 1836, 1847, 1858, 1869. 1880 and 1891. So also the mean conditions between maxima and minima which came in 1852-53, 1863-64, 1874-75 and 1885-86, are very close to the famine years 1854, 1865-66, 1876-77 and 1884-85. The possibility of predicting famines in India is too obvious for comment. The present famine is, according to the Lockyers, to be explained by abnormal solar temperature. A mean temperature would, acording to precedent, have been reached in 1897 or 1898, but observations of the spectrum show that it has not even yet been reached. To the absence of the minimum condition, which should have obtained in 1899 and caused rain from the southern ocean, the present famine is due.

 

Among recent events of scientific interest we note the following: Professor W. W. Campbell has been elected director of the Lick Observatory, in the room of the late Professor James E. Keeler.— Otto H. Tittman, assistant superintendent of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, has been promoted to the superintendency, vacant by the resignation of Dr. Henry S. Pritchett, to accept the presidency of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.—The vacancy caused by the death of William Saunders, for the past thirty-eight years superintendent of Experimental Gardens and Grounds, United States Department of Agriculture, has been filled by the appointment of B. T. Galloway, who in turn has been succeeded by Albert F. Woods as chief of the Division of Vegetable Physiology and Pathology.—President D. C. Gilman, of the Johns Hopkins University, has privately intimated to the trustees his intention of resigning at the close of the present academic year, which will complete twenty-five years of service since the opening of the university in 1876.—Sir William Huggins, the eminent astronomer, has succeeded Lord Lister as president of the Royal Society. The medals of the Society have been presented as follows: The Copley Medal to M. Berthelot, For. Mem. R. S., for his services to chemical science: the Rumford Medal to M. Becquerel, for his discoveries in radiation proceeding from uranium; a Royal medal to Major MacMahon, for his contributions to mathematical science; a Royal Medal to Prof. Alfred Newton, for his contributions to ornithology; the Davy Medal to Prof. Guglielmo Koerner, for his investigations on the aromatic compounds; and the Darwin Medal to Prof. Ernst Haeckel, for his work in zoology.—Lord Avebury has given the first Huxley Memorial Lecture, which the Anthropological Institute of London has established to commemorate Huxley's anthropological work.—It is proposed to found two memorials in honor of the late Miss Mary Kingsley, one a small hospital at Liverpool for the treatment of tropical diseases and one a society for the study of the natives of West Africa.—The death is announced of Dr. John Gardiner, until recently professor of biology in the University of Colorado, and of Dr. Adolf Pichler, formerly professor of geology at the University at Innsbruck, and an eminent German poet and man of letters.—Mr. D. O. Mills, of New York, has promised the University of California about $24,000, to defray the expenses of a two years' astronomical expedition from the Lick Observatory to South America or Australia, the object of which is to study the movement of stars in the line of sight.—Surgeon Major Reed and a board of experts are continuing the investigation into the propagation of yellow fever by mosquitoes, and an experimental station will be established outside Havana.—Tufts College will open at South Harpswell, Me., next summer, a small marine biological laboratory under the direction of Prof, J. S. Kingsley.