Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/December 1874/Miscellany

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Does the Earth rotate at a uniform rate?—In the September number of Silliman's Journal, we find a remarkable paper by Prof. Newcomb, of the Naval Observatory, Washington, to the conclusions of which we wish to call the attention of our readers.

Prof. Newcomb, who has for some time been engaged on the most difficult problem of celestial mechanics—the "Theory of the Moon's Motion"—published, in 1870, a paper referring to some of the difficulties in this theory. He has treated the lunar theory in quite an original and exhaustive manner, and, in the course of his investigations, arrived at the fact that there were certain outstanding differences between theory and observation which had not yet been accounted for by the gravitation of the known bodies of the solar system. Prof. Newcomb suggested that there were only three possible explanations of the discrepancy: 1. The mathematical analysis was not sufficiently extended; 2. The motion of the moon was affected by some force different from gravitation; 3. The time of the earth's rotation on its axis was not constant.

The second hypothesis Prof. Newcomb showed was not at all probable, since the effects of a force other than gravitation would produce variations of a different kind from the ones actually noticed: the first hypothesis Prof. Newcomb has, since 1870, been engaged in testing, and his researches have convinced him that analysis has taken cognizance of every important inequality in the moon's motion. This makes it necessary to examine rigorously the third hypothesis, viz., that the earth's time of rotation on its axis is not strictly uniform.

This explanation is, at first sight, somewhat startling, since the absolute uniformity of the sidereal day has long been supposed certain. Prof. Newcomb's researches in 1870 led him, however, to the conclusion that the earth had been rotating somewhat slower than the average rate for ten or twenty years previous to 1860; that about 1860 the rotation was accelerated, so that there was a gain of at least a second per annum till about 1872.

This hypothesis would, we must member, account for the inequalities in the moon's motion, but it rested on no independent basis. Since that time, Prof. Newcomb has devised a method of testing this question by totally different means, viz., by an examination of the eclipses of Jupiter's first satellite; and this test has been applied by Mr. Glasenapp, an astronomer of Pulkova. Mr. Glasenapp's researches indicate with great certainty that the earth's rotation is not strictly uniform, and that Prof. Newcomb's hypothesis is sustained. The accurate determination of the amount by which the earth is fast or slow is yet to be reached, but we must accept two important facts as probable: 1. That the earth's rotation time is not strictly constant. 2. That the inequalities in the moon's motion are largely, if not wholly, due to this.

Growth and Reproduction of the Antlers of the Deer.—John Dean Caton, whose observations on the natural history of the American Cervidæ are familiar to the readers of Mr. Darwin's writings, contributes to the American Naturalist for June an important paper on the "Structure and Casting of the Antlers of Deer." He shows, in the first place, the substantial identity of structure between the antlers and the ordinary bones; in fact, the antlers are external bones, of very rapid growth, which mature speedily, die, and are soon thrown off; while all other bones are very slow of growth, and persist through life.

The process of growth is as follows: The old antler having fallen off, the blood-vessels of the periosteum at its butt are ruptured, producing a copious flow of blood. Next, the periosteum grows over the cavity in the top of the pedicel, or process of the skull on which the antler stood. On the approach of spring, this covering becomes inflamed, resembling a blood-blister. It rises up rapidly, new systems of blood-vessels forming in it, till its height is twice its diameter; then an osseous deposit is commenced at the circumference of the top of the pedicel. As this deposit rises it thickens very slowly, the upper extremity presenting a thin, serrated edge. Blood-vessels from the periosteum traverse this tissue, supplying it with nourishment. This is the source of supply from without; but there are internal sources also, viz., arteries passing up through the pedicel, and answering to the medullary arteries of long bones.

At the extremities, first, the deposit of earthy salts goes on till this fills up the canals leading from the periosteum into the bony mass, so that the circulation through them is obstructed; and this process goes on till all communication between the internal and the external blood-vessels is severed. The animal is now prompted, by some natural impulse, to rub off this outer covering, while it is gorged with blood. The cavities in the branches and the upper portion of the beam soon become hardened throughout, and the solid wall in the lower part much thickened. Before the central section has become solid, the nutrient vessels are obstructed below, and the deposit of bony particles arrested, while yet the larger portions of the antler are more or less porous. This makes the antler lighter, without seriously diminishing its strength, for its walls are braced within, in every imaginable direction, by thin plates of bone.

In the mean time, the lower extremity, too, becomes more and more compact, and the pedicel, which, during the active growth of the antler, was open and porous, commences a new deposit of laminæ in its cavities. But now, all sources of nutriment having been cut off, the antler dies, and is removed by a singular process. One of the systems of blood-vessels which supply nutriment to the growing antler commences active operations to undermine it. The absorbents of these blood-vessels attack the point of junction between the antler and the pedicel. They do not carry away the surface of the bone evenly, so as to make it smooth, but, as it were, they remove alternate particles, till the union, which before was so firm that no force could break it at the point of juncture, has become so weakened that the antler is detached by some slight violence.

A Remarkable South American Valley.—According to Iron, the upper valley of the Bio Madeira, one of the chief tributaries of the Amazons, rivals California and Australia in mineral wealth. This valley, which contains about 400,000 square miles, is marvelously rich in every South American product of value. Its eastern and central parts, the Bolivian provinces of Cordillera, Chiquitos, and Beni, were first settled by the Jesuits, who penetrated northward from their settlements in the valley of the Rio de la Plata, and organized numerous "reductions" of the native tribes, and founded many prosperous towns. These, however, were always either on the banks of navigable streams, or within easy reach of them. In the extreme eastern part of the Madeira Valley is the Brazilian province of Matto Grosso, abounding in valuable agricultural products, and gold and diamond washings. Owing to its inaccessibility, it is very thinly populated, but no doubt, in the future, will be one of the most prosperous states of the Brazilian Empire. At present, it is one of the most unprotected frontiers of that country, being almost at the mercy of the states of the La Plata Valley in case of war.

Ascending the upper central and western rivers of the Madeira Valley, we come to the richest of all the slopes of the Andes, well populated by the Spanish race, mixed with Quichua and Aymara Indians, the Indian element being probably the best on the American Continent. The Bolivian part of the valley contains about 2,500,000 people, the Indian blood slightly predominating. At the date of Bolivian independence, 1825, the population was under 1,000,000. The country in which they live is, without exception, the richest on the globe, in every thing that Nature gives to man. Its mineral wealth cannot be matched within an equal area on the Western Continent. The number of silver-mines opened there during Spanish rule might appear fabulous, were they not registered in the archives of the state: they exceed 10,000! From the banks of the little streams which feed the Beni branch of the Madeira, gold may be washed almost anywhere. In fact, the whole slope of the Andes, in an immense sweep of 1,000 miles, extending from Cuzco to Matto Grosso, is a vast gold-placer.

A Rare Species of Rabbit.—In Prof. Hayden's "Report of the Geological Survey of the Territories" for 1872, Mr. C. H. Merriam describes a very rare species of rabbit (Lepus Bairdii) inhabiting the pine-regions about the head-waters of the Wind and Yellowstone Rivers, in Wyoming. Mr. Merriam secured five specimens of this animal, which, with the exception of one placed in the Smithsonian collection by Prof. Hayden, in 1860, are the first individuals of the species that have been brought before the scientific world. One very curious fact relating to Baird's rabbit is, that all the males have teats, and take part in suckling the young! Four out of the five specimens were adult males, and they all had large teats full of milk; and the hair around the nipple was wet, and stuck to it, showing that, when taken, they had just been engaged in nursing their young. As no females were found, Mr. Merriam thought this might be an hermaphrodite form; so he and Dr. Josiah Curtis dissected a large male, which was found to contain the usual male genital organs, but no uterus, ovaries, or other female organs. Another old male was dissected, with the same result.

Steel Bars for Bells.—An item has long been on its travels both in England and this country, announcing steel bars as a cheap and efficient substitute for bells in churches, factories, etc. To numerous letters of inquiry on the subject, we have been obliged to reply that we knew nothing of the kind either here or abroad. The London Builder, having been similarly questioned, has lately taken the trouble to examine the matter, and the following is the only foundation for the statement it has been able to discover:

On the 28th of July, 1873, a provisional specification only was granted by the English Patent-Office to Ferdinand Rahles and James Dixon Mackenzie, for new or improved bells, or bar-bells and apparatus connected therewith. This invention consists of sounding instruments made from bars of steel, or other metal compositions, of a straight or curved form, producing musical notes or sounds. These bars are made of any suitable weight or dimensions, according to the power of sound desired. They are intended to be a substitute for ordinary cast bells, for use in churches or other places, and are suspended and carried in or on frames perpendicularly or otherwise, the sounds being produced from them by concussion with mallets or other mechanical contrivances worked either by manual or other mechanical agency.

Each bar is struck by a mallet or mallets, and motion is communicated to the arms of the mallets by cords or other suitable attachments to the outer end of the arms, and passing down the tower or other place where the bars are fitted. The inventors of the above not having perfected the patent, any one is now at liberty to carry out the design.

The Transmutation of Species.—A friend in Hamilton, N. Y., kindly sends us the following extract, translated from the German of Carus Sterne; the passage occurs in the course of an interesting essay by that writer on "The Radish:" "The more strict among modern botanists," says Sterne, "refuse to place the charlock (Hederich) in the same species with the radish. In general character, there is a considerable resemblance between the two; but this proves little, since most specimens of the Crucifera family show a strong habitual resemblance. In the fruit, which in this family furnishes almost the only distinguishing feature, a great difference exists. The charlock bears fruit from one and a half to two inches long, thin, necklace-like, with a decided beak, separating crosswise, at maturity, into joints, each joint containing a shining seed. The radish, on the contrary, bears a plump, coniform pod, almost without a beak; and, at maturity, it splits lengthwise. The seeds are not shining, but wrinkled. So great is this difference, that many modern botanists have departed from Linnæus's classification of these plants as two varieties of the same species—Raphanus raphanistrum and R. sativus—and have made of the former a separate species, Raphanistrum.

"But two summers ago, Prof. H. Hoffmann discovered that Linnæus was right. For four years he had cultivated charlock in the Botanic Gardens at Giessen, and at last had the joy of finding, amid many transition forms, genuine radish-fruit, upon two charlock-plants. As hybridization with radish was out of the question, this was held to be a demonstration of the specific identity of these two plants. This is a highly-important and instructive discovery: it is a sort of 'leap' which, morphologically considered, seems greater perhaps than that from man to ape.

"Those," continues the author, "who wish to know nothing of the transmutation of species, but who hold that all things have continued from eternity as they were created, will conclude that the devil himself has here stuck a pair of radish-pods in Prof. Hoffmann's charlocks, simply to lead men astray. Should the observation be verified (of which we have no doubt), and if we have not here to deal merely with a mixture of pollens, as in the supposed transformation of Ægilops into wheat, then will the radish become one of the strongest arguments for the Darwinian theory."

The Corrosion of Glass.—A correspondent sends the following on the corrosion of glass, by what would otherwise be considered a bland and harmless liquid:

"My daughters sometimes make a mantel ornament by half filling a glass tumbler with water, placing a little cotton on the water, and then laying some grains of wheat, oats, or flax-seed on the cotton. A small field of grain is soon the result; but invariably the glass is corroded in such a way as to look blurred and dim. In one or two cases, a bouquet of flowers cut from the stems in the yard, and placed in a glass tumbler, and accidentally left standing a few days, produced the same effect as the growing grain. After spoiling quite a number of glasses in this way—some of fine cut glass—the practice was abandoned as unprofitable in general. In one of the corroded tumblers there is now growing a fine patch of wheat. Your article on the action of mucilage brought this matter up in conversation. Whether others have noticed this fact is unknown to me; and, if not, this may be an item of news to them."

A Human Automaton.—The following particulars with regard to the case of the French sergeant, quoted in Prof. Huxley's Belfast letter, we find in the Lancet. During the late war between France and Germany, two and a half inches of the left parietal bone of his skull was carried off by a bullet, laying bare the brain on that side. The resulting paralysis of the members of the right side of the body having yielded to treatment, and the wound in the skull having commenced to heal, the man began to resume his usual occupation of a singer in cafés. Soon, however, he was seized with nervous symptoms of an extraordinary nature, lasting from twenty-four to forty-eight hours, and he returned to the hospital. When in his fit, he is totally insensible to pain, but his will may be influenced by contact with exterior objects. When set upon his feet he marches on quite steadily, with fixed eyes, but utters no word, nor knows what is going on about him. If he meets with an obstacle in his way, he tries to make out what it is by feeling, and then attempts to get out of its way. If a pen be put in his hand he will fumble about for ink and paper, and, if he gets these, will write a very sensible business letter. Give him cigarette-paper, and he will take out his tobacco-pouch and make a cigarette, and light it with a match from his own box. If a by-stander extinguish the match, he will strike another; and so on till his supply is exhausted. But, if a lighted match be put into his hand, he will not use it, and will let it burn between his fingers. No matter what his tobacco-pouch is filled with, he will roll his cigarette all the same, and smoke it. When the fit is past, he has no recollection of what has been said or done.

Cremation among North American Indians.—Dr. John L. Le Conte read a paper at the Hartford meeting of the American Association, giving an account of a ceremonial of cremation among the Cocopa Indians of California, of which he was an eye-witness. A shallow ditch was dug, in which logs of the mesquite, a hard, dense wood which makes a very hot fire, with but little flame or smoke, were laid. The body was placed on the logs, with some smaller fagots piled upon it, and a few of the personal effects of the deceased were also added. Fire was then applied to the pile. At this point the doctor was about to retire, when one of the Indians told him to remain, as there was yet something to be seen. An old man then advanced from the assemblage with a long, pointed stick in his hand. With this he removed the eyes, holding them successively on the point of the stick in the direction of the sun, repeating at the same time words which were represented as being a prayer for the soul of the deceased. After this more fagots were heaped on the fire, which was kept up for three or four hours longer. When the fire has gone out, it is the custom to gather the fragments of bone and put them in a terra-cotta vase, which is kept under the care of the family. Dr. Le Conte was unable to say whether the custom of burning the dead was a general one or not, among this or other California tribes of Indians, but thought it desirable to gather up and put on record whatever evidence there might be on so interesting a subject, before the total disappearance of these people put the settlement of the question beyond our reach.

House-heating in Sweden.—A traveler in Sweden contributes to one of the newspapers an account of the very economical mode of house-warming adopted in that country. The kakelung, or Swedish stove, is a great oven of masonry covered with porcelain plates, having usually five flues, through which the gases of combustion must pass up and down, a distance of thirty to fifty, or even sixty feet, before escaping into the air. The general principle of their operation is to provide enough material to absorb all the heat from the fire; to conduct the gases through these long flues till their temperature has fallen to a point that no longer gives off heat. The quantity of the material in the kakelung is so great that the temperature from one firing will not raise the temperature of any part so much that the hand's cannot be held upon the outside. Two hours after a fire is made, and after the wood-fuel has burned up, and the flue been closed, the kakelung begins to get warm on the outside, the light porcelain plates give off their moderate warmth to the atmosphere in the room, and ten hours later there will not be much difference in the temperature of the stove or of the room. A kakelung, instead of being an unsightly obstruction, is an ornamental piece of furniture. A door opens into it in front, where, in a kind of closet with iron shelves, food can be kept warm, or warmed. Baking can be done in the furnace for hours after the fire has been burned out.

How Suctorial Insects feed.—It is commonly supposed that dipterous, or two-winged insects, never eat the pollen of plants, their mouths being destitute of mandibles, and fitted only with a tube, or proboscis, for sucking up juices. That this statement does not hold good for all insects belonging to this order, is shown from observations lately made by Alfred W. Bennett. This distinguished entomologist has found that at least insects of the family Syrphidæ (hoverer-flies) eat the pollen of plants. He has examined, under the microscope, the contents of the abdomen of two species of syrphidæ, which he found to be colored a bright orange, owing to the presence of enormous quantities of aster-pollen. That the grains of pollen are not accidentally taken up, but form an actual article of food, is proved by their being found in every stage of digestion, the fluid contents of the grains being apparently the nutritive substance, and the skins being ultimately excreted. During the last spring, Mr. Bennett captured Eristalis tenax (the drone-fly) on the flowers of the sloe. The abdomen of the insect was full of pollen-grains, belonging to at least three kinds of plants—sloe, dandelion, and probably fuchsia.

Oxidation retarded by Molecular Vibrations.—A paper was read, at the American Association meeting, on "Mechanical Vibration retarding Rust," by Prof. S. S. Haldeman. The iron track of a railroad is but little subject to oxidation, while iron rails piled alongside quickly rust. If traffic be suspended on a railroad for a day, and, in the mean time, a rain of some hours' duration fall on the rails, they soon show signs of rust. From these facts Prof. Haldeman argues that, in chemical combination, mechanical vibrations may interfere with the molecular arrangement of the elements. He would, however, have these casual observations submitted to the test of experiment. A discussion followed, in the course of which it was suggested that possibly the oil employed upon locomotives might be more or less spread in a thin film over rails in use, and thus prevent their oxidation. This view met with no favor. Prof. Van der Weyde was quite certain that the suggestion of Prof. Haldeman had reference to a fact in physics. Molecular vibrations do undoubtedly tend to prevent rust: a saw hung up unused would soon grow rusty, whereas if used it would keep bright; and the observation is universal with regard to mechanical tools.

The Metric System of Weights and Measures.—On the last day of the Hartford meeting of the American Association, President Barnard, of Columbia College, delivered an address on the "Metric System." He predicted that the metric system will become the sole system of weights and measures in use throughout civilized nations before the year 1900. In France, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, the German Empire in fact,—all Europe, except Scandinavian countries and England, and in all America, except the United States, the metric system has been adopted. Even in the Indian empire of Great Britain the metric system has been adopted, and that system has been legalized, though not yet adopted, in Great Britain and here. At the Vienna Metrological Congress, every delegate, though representing nearly every country on the civilized globe, voted for the metric system.