Science

IN a recent admirable little essay, entitled “Wear and Tear; or, Hints for the Overworked,” Dr. Weir Mitchell calls attention to sundry interesting facts which seem to indicate that hard work is carried on in this country under peculiarly unfavorable conditions. Not only does it appear, from the testimony of numerous savants, that foreigners can support protracted brainwork better than Americans, but the evidence further goes to show that foreign students who come to this country find it harder to work here than at home; while conversely, American students who spend some time in Europe find their work less exhausting than at home. Between mental labor and the use of alcohol and tobacco, the connection may not at first seem obvious ; yet when we remember that narcotic stimulants work their effects chiefly upon the brain and nervous system, there seems to be some significance in the facts that a quantity of wine which would produce certain intoxication in America may be drunk with impunity in England, and that a like relation holds in the case of tobacco.

Facts of this sort arc difficult to establish with precision, and it docs not come within our province to inquire into the evidence upon which they are based. Personally, we are inclined to accept them, and even to agree with Dr. Mitchell in ascribing them partly to climatic differences, not yet well understood, between our own country and Western Europe. Indeed, since we are really Englishmen, who have lived for oniv a couple of centuries in a climate very widely different from that of our mother-country, there is a prion very little reason for doubting that we may be as yet quite ill-adapted to the physical conditions of our new habitat, so that our strength cannot for the present be so favorably exerted as if we were still living in the mother-country. This may readily be granted without implying any necessary degeneracy of the English race in America, about which so much nonsense has been written, though not by Dr. Mitchell. We must remember that the English are not indigenous to England, but to Central Asia, and that a race which has not only survived but improved under one such transplanting may equally survive and after a while improve under another.

Putting aside such speculations about climate, we may assert, without fear of contradiction, that one respect in which social life in America contrasts unfavorably with social life in England (and still more unfavorably with European life in general) is the feverishness of its activity. As a general rule, the American is more jaded than the European. Where the latter takes two months of vacation, the former takes two weeks ; and where the latter goes home at three in the afternoon, and dismisses business from his mind, the former goes home at six, and carries business home with him. The cause is perhaps to be sought in the excessive stimulus toward “getting on in life” which our social conditions afford. The effects are to be seen in our hot-bed system of education, in our prematurely care-worn faces, and in the steady increase of nervous diseases in our large towns. Though we are not a nation of scholars or abstract thinkers, there is no doubt that we work our brains more violently than any other people. To carry on a large business often involves more wear and tear of the higher nervous centres than to sit quietly in one’s room and solve abstruse scientific problems. As Dr. Mitchell shows, the people who break down oftenest are not scholars or clergymen, but merchants and manufacturers who undertake large business operations early in life, and not seldom with borrowed capital. Lawyers and doctors, who necessarily begin with a small practice and slowly grow up to the requirements of a large business, rarely shouldering a heavy load until they are past the age of thirty, are much less subject to nervous diseases. And doctors, in spite of their very irregular habits of life, their midnight watchings and their hurried meals, withstand the wear and tear of brain-work better than any other class of people, owing no doubt to the large proportion of time which they spend in the open air.

And this leads to other kindred considerations. One chief respect in which our severe climate and our over-stimulating social conditions harass us, is the excessive preponderance of in-door activity which they involve. Now man is not yet an indoor animal, though he seems to be in a fair way to become one ultimately. The intense pleasure and the renewed vigor which we feel in summer picnickings may serve to indicate the extent to which our old barbaric needs still assert themselves in our mental and physical constitution. We cannot, however, again become out-door barbarians ; nor is it urged that barbaric life is more conducive to health than civilized life. We may nevertheless learn from the savage one all-important hygienic lesson. In innumerable ways the savage violates the laws of health ; but he at least breathes pure air, and his blood is rapidly oxygenated. Now one of the worst features, perhaps the very worst, of our indoor activity is the way in which it interferes with the due aeration of our blood. And this is a feature of in-door life which we can and must obviate. Partly due to imperfect science, but still more to unpardonable carelessness of the plainest rules of hygiene, is the unquestioned fact that our houses, our school-rooms, our theatres, and our public conveyances are, as far as the atmosphere is concerned, foul dens of corruption. He who will read, for example, the two interesting papers on “ Rebreathed Air,” and on “ Experiments with Air-Furnaces,” in Dr. Nichols’s just-published “ Fireside Science,” will not fail to appreciate the justice of our emphatic epithet. In these days of prohibitory liquor laws and anti-tobacco agitation, we may profitably bear in mind that the Indian weed (if practically a poison at all, which may be doubted) is far less poisonous than the carbonic oxide which burning anthracite invariably generates ; and that where whiskey has slain its tens of thousands, rebreathed air has slain its tens of thousands. Indeed, it may be seriously questioned whether the latter demon is not a secret but powerful ally of the former, producing as it does that anaemia, or deficiency of red blood disks, which may well be supposed capable of urging the jaded system to solace itself by alcoholic stimulation. From the moral point of view our more just and enlightened posterity will probably regard the Pennsylvania coal monopolists of our time very much as we regard the Rhenish barons of the twelfth century, who used to levy blackmail on every innocent traveller ; and from the scientific point of view they will probably look back upon us in our over-heated and foul-aired houses with the same sort of pity with which we look back upon our ancestors in their unchimneyed, undrained, and plague-producing hovels. However this may be, it is incumbent on us, as our chief hygienic duty, on the one hand, to devise some efficient method of carrying rebreathed air out of our houses, and, on the other hand, either to cease using anthracite for domestic purposes, or to invent (if it be possible) some kind of stove or furnace which will not cause our faces to flush and our temples to throb under the influence of Stygian blasts of carbonic oxide.

In passing, we may observe that Dr. Nichols’s little book above mentioned, under the title of “ Fireside Science,” contains a number of short essays, all of which arc wrell worth reading, and many of which are of considerable practical value.

The age of crude and inaccurate scientific text-books, prepared by half-educated compilers, seems at last to be passing away. To say nothing of the admirable manuals by Lockycr, Williamson, Balfour Stewart, Huxley, and others, published by Macmillan & Co., and which contain what is needed by beginners in science, aided by ordinarily competent teachers, we now seem likely to get a series of works equally well executed upon a somewhat higher plane. Dr. Edward L. Youmans, of New York,— whose time seems to be wholly devoted to the disinterested service of science and of his fellow-men, —has conceived and partly carried into execution a project which cannot fail to be of the highest value in more ways than one. The leading thinkers and scientific inquirers of Germany, France, England, and America are to unite in producing a series of scientific monographs, to be called the “ International Scientific Series.” These works, to cite the English prospectus, “ are not designed to instruct beginners, but for the information of the more cultivated classes, who may be assumed to know something of the rudiments of science, and to appreciate some closeness of exposition. Yet, as they are intended to address the non-scientific public, they will require to be thoroughly explanatory in Character, and as free from technicalities as is compatible with entire truthfulness of representation. Among other aims of the series will be that of presenting scientific thought and information in a model form, combining simplicity with accuracy ; and it is believed that writers, having the consciousness that they are addressing the reading public of the chief civilized nations, will give earnest attention to the art of clear and attractive statement.” These works are to be crown octavos, containing not more than 350 pages, and are to cost not more than two dollars each. As specimens of the high character of the projected series, we may mention that it will include monographs by Professor Huxley, on “ Bodily Motion and Consciousness ” ; by Sir John Lubbock, on “ The Antiquity of Man ” ; by Professor Virchow, on “ Morbid Physiological Action ” ; by Professor Odling, on “ The New' Chemistry ” ; by Professor Ramsay, on “Earth-Sculpture”; by Professor Wurtz, on “The Atomic Theory” ; by Professor Tyndall, on “ Ice and Glaciers ” ; by Herbert Spencer, on “ The Study of Sociology ” ; and so on. Many other works are already announced, but these will serve our purposes of illustration.

Regarded as a conscious and systematic organization of scientific effort for the instruction of the community in matters respecting which it is highly desirable that the community should be soundly instructed, this project — conceived by Dr. Youmans, and successfully carried into the first stages of execution by his nobly unselfish labor—is well worthy of the age in which we live. But there is yet another feature in it which must command our heartiest praise. While our legislators are still groping in the dark as to the justice and expediency of allowing authors to be paid for their hard labor, private enterprise has here secured to a large number of authors the certainty of remuneration for works published simultaneously in four countries. The authors engaged in preparing works for this scries are to be paid a royalty or fixed sum per copy by the publishers in each country, the royalty on the first thousand being “prepaid by the publishers in England and America.

It need only be added that this series of works, having been organized by authors, will be controlled by authors. “ At the late meeting of the British Association in Edinburgh, a committee of eminent scientific men was formed, who will decide on the works to be introduced into the series in England and the United States, upon the order of their publication, and upon all questions which may arise affecting the character of the enterprise, and the interests of the authors w7ho take part in it.”

Among the many philanthropic enterprises of our time, a project like this, which cannot fail to result in unalloyed benefit to every one, deserves especially honorable mention. And we do not fear contradiction when we call the news of its successful inauguration the most important scientific news of the month.