Popular Science, May 1900

May 1, 2016

Smooth-reading at Distributed Proofreaders can sometimes be a mixed bag, from the fascinating to the dull, even in the same project. When I smooth-read the May 1900 issue of The Popular Science Monthly, I found some of the articles quite interesting. Others were really rather boring, at least to me. For instance, I skim-read the article about blind fish. I really couldn’t make myself interested in how their skin and eyes work. Probably, to someone, this would be information of the utmost importance, but sadly, that article tended to put me to sleep. I found myself dozing off several times while attempting to read it, and eventually I decided to skip the rest of the article. There was another article that didn’t interest me, which was about International Law.

But there were also several articles in this magazine that I found enthralling. The first was about the total eclipse of the sun, May 28, 1900. It was interesting to see the meteorological charts that were drawn up. One chart could be used for predicting cloud cover over the path of the eclipse, and another chart showed what fraction of the surface of the sun would be covered during the time of the eclipse.

cloud cover chart

Chart II.—Probable State of the Sky along the Eclipse Track. Average percentage of cloudiness in May and June.

This article had particular appeal for me because in 1979, my husband and I traveled to Winnipeg, Canada, to witness the total solar eclipse that occurred on February 26. It was an amazing sight, and one I will never forget. In the summer of 2017 there will be another total solar eclipse which crosses the US. It will pass very close to Cairo, Illinois, and we intend to be there to see it.

So, reading about the 1900 eclipse brought back wonderful memories to me. I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s dissertation on the best way to take photos (which has not changed much, except that we now have digital cameras), speculation as to what the solar corona is, and general information about the eclipse.

This issue of Popular Science also includes an article titled “A Hundred Years of Chemistry.” What an interesting article! It speaks of new inventions such as the discovery of how to melt platinum, and how advances in electrical furnaces will change the future. There are many other interesting tidbits in this article, many of which have affected our lives today. For instance, the author wrote:

As we near the end of the century we find one more discovery to note, from a most unexpected quarter—the discovery of new gases in the atmosphere. In 1893 Lord Rayleigh was at work upon new determinations of density, with regard to the more important gases. In the case of nitrogen an anomaly appeared: nitrogen obtained from the atmosphere was found to be very slightly heavier than that prepared from chemical sources, but the difference was so slight that it might almost have been ignored. To Rayleigh, however, such a procedure was inadmissible, and he sought for an explanation of his results. Joining forces with Ramsay, the observed discrepancies were hunted down, and in 1894 the discovery of argon was announced. Ramsay soon found in certain rare minerals another new gas—helium—whose spectral lines had previously been noted in the spectrum of the sun; and still later, working with liquid air, he discovered four more of these strange elements—krypton, xenon, neon, and metargon. By extreme accuracy of measurement this chain of discovery was started, and, as some one has aptly said, it represents the triumph of the third decimal. A noble dissatisfaction with merely approximate data was the motive which initiated the work.

To the chemist these new gases are sorely puzzling. They come from a field which was thought to be exhausted, and cause us to wonder why they were not found before. The reason for the oversight is plain: the gases are devoid of chemical properties, at least none have yet been certainly observed. They are colorless, tasteless, odorless, inert; so far they have been found to be incapable of union with other elements; apart from some doubtful experiments of Berthelot, they form no chemical compounds. Under the periodic law they are difficult to classify; they seem to belong nowhere; they simply exist, unsocial, alone. Only by their density, their spectra, and some physical properties can these intractable new forms of matter be identified.

Finally, there is a short article about winking! Someone did a study trying to figure out how long a typical “wink” lasts. We would call the phenomenon being studied a blink, but still, to think that someone was able to actually time the duration of a blink of an eye (several eyes, actually) in 1900, is quite amazing to me.

Popular Science magazine has been around for a long time, and I encourage you all to check out some of the old editions being made available through Project Gutenberg. They’re fun! Well … mostly.

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