Wonders of Everyday Things
How Insects Give Us Shellac and Ink—The Head-Hunters of Borneo—Can Rain Be Made Artificially?—More Reviews of New Books
By THOMAS M. JOHNSON
“Modern Aladdins and Their Magic”
By Charles E. Rush and Amy Winslow, Little Broicn & Co.
“Here and There in Popular Science”
By Jean Henri Fabre, Century Co.
DID you know that the shellac on your hardwood floors was made by insects, called the lac insects, probably in India? Soon after these insects hatch out, they attach themselves to twigs of trees and proceed to shellac the branches, coating them with a resinous substance which is collected and purified, to become ground.
The ink on your desk comes from insects too, and from fish. In Asia the gallfly “lays ink” on oak trees under the bark. Lumps or knots grow over the eggs, and these “nutgalls” are cut off, soaked in water, mixed with green vitriol, mucilage and acid. The result is the best ink made. The ink in your fountain pen, however, is probably made from an artificial dye because it is smooth and does not thicken.
The varnish on the chair you sit on is made of sap, hardened from lying in the earth thousands of years. Perhaps it melted and flowed into the earth when the forests were burned. Thousands of people make a living digging this gum in lumps from the ground.
The chalk children use in school is made from the skeletons of sea animals that lived thousands of years ago. You can see them by looking at chalk with a powerful microscope. These tiny animals died, and their bones accumulated on the limestone sea bottom. Then earthquakes brought up the sea bottom and it dried, forming chalk pits composed of the skeletons, so small that it takes a million of them to make a cubic inch of chalk.
YOUR aluminum kitchen utensils are made from mud. It took two hundred years to discover how to extract this light silvery metal from the earth. And the asbestos mats in your kitchen were dug up from the earth. This substance, impervious to heat, is a mineral that is mined, then winnowed and spun.
These miracles, the results of which we see before us daily, we take for granted. Vie meet them in our own homes, in the streets, but we pass them by without a thought. They, and many others of the wonders of everyday life about us, are told in Modern Aladdins and Their Magic and Here and There in Popular Science.
If some enterprising person, we learn, had not smuggled a machine into this country in a cargo of salt more than a hundred years ago, we should not have the knitting industry that gives us our stockings. England was trying to keep the invention secret. The silk of which stockings are made was a secret, too, for centuries. It was long a capital crime to carry silkworm eggs out of China.
Marvelous photographs can be made today showing the different steps in the bursting of a soap bubble shattered by a bullet. The exposure lasts l/3000th of a second. Yet the first permanent photograph was produced only 100 years ago.
Another little known miracle of the world about us is that the plants in our gardens sleep at night, just as we do— that is, most of them do. All plants with delicate leaves sleep, and curl up at night to do it. Every plant has a characteristic attitude for nightly slumber.
“Evenings with the Stars” and “The Romance of Comets”
By Mary Proctor, Harper's
FLAMING crucibles of the heavens are the seven stars of the Great Dipper, most familiar of the constellations. Each of them is a mighty molten sun, probably greater than our own sun; a fiery furnace in which such stubborn metals as steel and iron are reduced to glowing vapor.
Air upon these suns is a mixture of iron and zinc steam. The clouds that form over such a world are metallic drops; its rains, molten metal. Five stars of the seven seem to drift together, forming a sort of drifting set in the sky; the Dipper is changing, and thousands of years from now children may not be taught to look for it in the sky because it will not be there.
In fact, all things are changing continually in the sky. There are old stars and young stars, and we can tell their ages by their colors. The young star glows an ardent red. Then, as temperature increases, it becomes yellow; then white or blue. The brilliantly white or blue stars are hottest and in the prime of life. As they cool, they become yellow and finally red again, before they flicker out.
If we lived on a planet belonging to the system of Antares, our sunlight would be green or red, as one sun passed over the other. For there is a green star, a companion to Antares, whose softer light is usually obscured from the Earth by the ruddy glare of the great Antares.
The writer of Evenings with the Stars and The Romance of Comets tells these wonders of the skies on a plan somewhat new. We make the acquaintance of the stars and constellations on a series of twelve “ nights with the stars.” At the same time that we hear the ancient tales about them, we learn to pick them out in the sky, using a church steeple, a tree or a chimney as landmark and perhaps an opera glass as “telescope.” There really is little danger from shooting stars, we learn from the book on comets, for before they reach the Earth they burn to ashes.
By W. J. Humphreys, Williams • Wilkins
WHERE has the old-fashioned winter gone? Where are the wonderful sleighing and skating of other years?
The scientific answer is—right here, of course. The weather isn’t changing, and the instruments show it isn’t. There has been no persistent climatic change whatever since weather records began to be kept, Mr. Humphreys says, and he is associated with the Weather Bureau. It is we who are different, not the weather.
Can rain be made to order? Mr. Humphreys doesn’t believe that, either. There isn’t much use trying to bring on rain until Mother Nature is ready, he says. Take, for instance, the belief that thunder brings rain. Here is the truth:
It takes electrical separation to produce a heavy peal of. thunder, and for that there must be a correspondingly large amount of sus(Continued on page 113) pended raindrops. So, at the same moment, a race starts. The lightning flash, the noise of the thunder and the falling rain all start earthward together. The light travels 186,000 miles a second and gets in first. The thunder is more sedate and rumbles along at 1100 feet a second. The rain dawdles down at only twenty-five feet a second, so it reaches earth long after the thunder and lightning.
(Continued from page 42)
It doesn’t always rain after battles, either, we learn, or on the Fourth of July. Battles are often fought in good weather, so naturally are followed by bad. Analysis of weather reports for ten to forty years before the Fourth became safe and sane shows that the day averaged neither wetter nor dryer than the days before or after. So there’s no use, it seems, making a noise to start rain.
Mr. Humphreys lias studied various means to produce changes in the weather and he thinks they are all “the bunk,” including the new idea of sprinkling electrified sand or liquid air from airplanes. Likewise the Californian expedient of stretching electric wires. Rainfall in California is still substantially the same, he says. There is no way to control rain.
If you flatter yourself that you haven’t any foolish ideas about weather, Mr. Humphreys will soon disillusion you. The moon does not control weather, he declares, except that there are sometimes slight changes in surface temperature on some straits and coasts when tidal changes have brought up a mass of cold water. Neither does the dew fall. It comes from adjacent air or oozes from grass.
“Twenty Years in Borneo”
By Charles Bruce, Frederick A. Stokes Co.
THEY celebrate New Year’s Day in Borneo by shooting poisoned darts from blowpipes at targets representing human heads.
The blowpipe, called a “sumpitan,” is a deadly weapon. It is a six-foot tube of hard wood, an inch or so in diameter, with a handmade bore of about a quarter of an inch, so accurately bored that it looks like machine work. The darts are made of the rib of a palm leaf, fitted at one end with a plug of pith to fit the bore and sharpened at the other. The point is steeped in poison the composition of which is secret, but which, if fresh, causes death in five or ten minutes. Mr. Bruce, as he tells us in Twenty Years in Borneo, used an old dart on a monkey that was running amuck, and two minutes later the monkey dropped from a rafter to the ground and died almost immediately.
This poison is thought to be made partly from the upas tree juice. There is an antidote, but it is also a secret; the only way to avoid death is to excise the tissues about the wound.
In the New Year’s Day shooting match, all the dark gentlemen who competed had to discard trousers, “chawats” or loin cloths being the uniform required by the rules. Yet civilization seems to have made some progress in Borneo, to judge from Mr. Bruce’s interesting book. The head-hunters still hunt heads occasionally, but pretty far in the interior.