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See Inside November 2009

50 Years Ago: The Nutcracker Man

Innovation and discovery as chronicled in past issues of Scientific American



Scientific American, vol. CI, No. 19; November 6, 1909

NOVEMBER 1959
NERVE GROWTH— “No longer do physicians encourage the patient with a regenerated facial nerve to try to regain control of facial expression by training; their advice today is to inhibit all expression, to practice a ‘poker face’ in order to make the two sides of the face match in appearance. The outlook is equally dim for restoration of coordination in cases of severe nerve injury in other parts of the body. This changed viewpoint reflects a revision in the picture of the entire nervous system. According to the new picture, the connections necessary for normal coordination arise in embryonic development. —R. W. Sperry”
[NOTE: Roger W. Sperry won the 1981 Nobel Prize in medicine.]

FIRST TOOLMAKER— “At Olduvai Gorge in Tanganyika, L.S.B. Leakey has uncovered, almost intact, a skull that may furnish ‘the connecting link between the South African near-man or ape-man—Australopithecus and Paranthropus—and true man as we know him.’ Leakey believes that his find is between 600,000 and a million years old. If this estimate is supported by radioactive-dating tests soon to be undertaken at the University of California, the skull is the oldest yet discovered of the tool-making man. The skull, that of a youth of about 18, was found with ‘examples of the very primitive stone culture called Oldo­wan.’ According to Leakey, the skull is in some respects (its large teeth and palate [which gave the fossil the nickname ‘nutcracker man’]) more primitive than that of Australopithecus, but in other respects closer to Homo sapiens.”

NOVEMBER 1909
HOOKWORM— “The $1,000,000 given by John D. Rockefeller will go a long way toward eradicating the ‘hookworm.’ The worm was identified in 1903 by Dr. Charles Wardell Stiles of the Rockefeller Commission. Soil pollution is responsible for the existence and spread of the worm. It can be eliminated from the human body by a simple treatment of thymol and Epsom salts, the patient in most cases being cured in several days. Pronounced anaemia is the chief symptom of persons afflicted with the hookworm disease, accompanied by emaciation and great physical weakness. Laziness, mental lassitude, and stupidity are other symptoms. Uncinariasis is the technical name for the disease; its cause was not understood until about the middle of the nineteenth century.”

ICE TRADE— “Three-quarters of the ice used in France is artificial. Fifteen years ago considerable quantities of Norwegian ice were still brought to Paris via Dieppe. This commerce has now entirely ceased, and Norwegian ice is used only in cities on or near the seacoast. The annual consumption of ice for cooling purposes in France amounts to 200,000 tons, of which 150,000 tons are manufactured. Natural ice is not wholesome, as the majority of microbes survive temperatures of from –60 to –170 deg. F. At the instigation of the Paris health board, the prefect of the Seine issued an ordinance which restricted the use of natural ice to industrial establishments and admitted as ‘edible’ only artificial ice made either from sterilized water or water drawn from the city mains.”

WINDMILL BOAT— “A boat that is driven by windmills is certainly a mechanical curiosity. However, just why this complicated arrangement of bevel gears connecting the propeller shaft with the vertical windmill shafts should be better than canvas sails transcends our imagination.”

NOVEMBER 1859
FIRST OIL WELLS— “Recent news on Pennsylvania rock oil: in most counties a troublesome process must be undergone to extract oil from mineral substances, such as from coral and asphalt; but Pennsylvania seems to be so favorably dealt with by Dame Nature, that the very rocks distill oil into her lap. The north-western part of that State seems to contain quite a number of subterranean springs which yield a limpid oil, some of which we have examined, and quite recently there was a considerable excitement caused by the discovery of a rich oil spring while sinking a shaft to find a salt spring. The yield of the Seneca oil spring near Titusville, up to the period of the recent fire, was up to 1,600 gallons per day. This excitement is unabated.”

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