Jonathan Swift's Voyage to Laputa April 7, 1998 Russell McNeil Of the four parts of Gulliver's Travels, the third, the Voyage to Laputa, is for many the least satisfying and least understood. The conventional critical take on Part Three is that the entire series of episodes is fundamentally pointless and artless in comparison. It does of course satirize the new trends in mathematics and theoretical science and politics -- but does so with less finesse than Swift does in his accounts of Gulliver's three other voyages. The centre for these criticisms focus on the episodic character of the third voyage, the multiplicity of themes and the lack of clear philosophical intuition in the voyages to Lilliput and Brobdingnag -- or the savage attacks on the human condition in the voyage to the Houyhnhnyms. The three themes that critics find distasteful are the curious combinations of mathematics and music displayed by the Laputans, the lack of unity displayed by the Balnibarians -- especially the series of experiments at the Grand Academy of Lagado, and the so-called magical apparatus -- the Flying Island -- a device Swift borrowed from other sources. The simplest defense I think of these charges that Swift does not equal in Part III the standards of the rest of the voyages -- is to argue that this structure is quite deliberate. The word Laputa is derived -- as out text reminds us in a footnote on p.135 -- from the Spanish La Puta -- the whore. It is about a people and a place that deals unnaturally with its physical nature. If the structure and themes in this part of the story strike as unnatural, fragmented and incoherent -- it might well be that this is what Swift intends. Unnatural and disjointed and impractical philosophies make for unnatural, fragmented and impractical social structures. The third voyage I argue is meant not as a blanket condemnation of new sciences or new philosophies but as a warning to this imprudently over optimistic era to keep its eye on the past and its head out of the clouds. We need to notice too that the work here is not purely fanciful, even though on first reading it may not seem so. Swift draws nearly all of his satirical material from the genuine articles. Most of the ideas he presents are based on real experiments reported in the literature of his day -- and particularly on reports published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society during the last third of the 17th century and the first quarter of the 18th up to and including material published in 1726 -- the year Swift composed Part III. Swift uses this material -- extrapolated of course to ludicrous extremes - which he then blends with the then prevalent attitude that all mathematical and theoretical learning was "useless," to weave his underlying message that the "virtuosi" of his day had lost sight of the world at large. Modern society is not entirely unfamiliar with this still persistent view. Public perception still portrays absent minded unworldly scientists sporting pocket protectors pursuing unrealistic goals. Whether Swift intends this as a viscous attack on the new science or a call for balance depends on how we read the text. One of his sources for his satire on the Laputan fusion of geometry and music, to the exclusion of everything else, was the celebrated scientist Christiaan Huygens. In 1677 Huygens had written that, "no matter how inhabitants of other planets might differ from man in other ways, they must agree in music and geometry, since [music and geometry] are everywhere immutably the same, and always will be so." As satisfying as such a "universal" idea might seem -- and it is intriguing -- the role of the satirist is to make sure such ideas are seen in proper relief. Worshipping circles, ellipses, parabolas, oboes and violins and praising the beauties of the world in like fashion is after all an unbalanced response. Furthermore, the "new philosophies" of Swift's time - political, moral and natural - might not last - and history has shown this. New philosophies do not always endure. Everything has its fashion - everything has its day. Lucian - a satirist living in the second century who Swift greatly admired had done the same thing on the "old" philosophies 1,500 years earlier. Lucian had once written a work called "Philosophies Going cheap." In it, Pythagoras and Socrates, among others, were parodied with wit equal to that of Swift in his day. Swift's astounding "discovery" of the two moons of Mars -- known now as Phobos and Deimos -- 150 years before they were first discovered by Hall in 1877 -- was nothing more than a lucky guess: but the guess was a good one and showed that Swift was no slouch - - he did careful research and based his other speculations in the third voyage on real evidence. As for Mars, Swift knew that earth had one moon -- and Jupiter four --Galileo has demonstrated that in the "Starry Message." In his day Cassini had reported 5 moons around Saturn. What about Mars? Well, the sequence ran one for Earth, blank for Mars, four for Jupiter, and five for Saturn. For Mars, the "blank," he might have guessed 2 or 3. He guessed two. Swift was not a mathematician but he could handle Kepler's laws, so he devised orbital periods for those two moons with simple to handle times of 10 and 20 hours -- which placed them at the distances he used in the story -- these are a fair guess but far from an exact approximation to the 9,300 and 23,500 km distances they actually are. Those moons are by the way quite small -- if you placed the largest, Deimos, in downtown Nanaimo, its outer edge would extend only to the Departure Bay Ferry terminal. The Laputans fear of the sun and of comets was rooted in some very real anxieties. That the earth might be swallowed by the sun or that the sun would be "encrusted by its own effluvia" was a general and genuine concern. No less than the mighty Newton himself had, in his Principia, noted that the balance between the earth's orbital velocity, and its fall toward the sun, was extremely delicate. Any disturbance in that, Newton had said, would be disastrous. Although Newton concluded that any slowing of the earth as it moved about the sun through whatever was in its way was indeed small -- others were not so sure. This fear was tied up in the seemingly unrelated discussions about the nature of light. If light was some kind of a wave motion, it would require some sort of medium to get from the sun to the earth -- all waves known then needed something to be waves in! However, if light was made of particles or corpuscles -- as Newton called them -- no medium was necessary. Newton -- an advocate of the particle or corpuscular theory needed no medium -- but Robert Hooke -- an opponent of Newton -- believed light was wave like. If Hooke was right, the earth was in trouble -- the stuff -- whatever it was that light needed to move through would slow the earth down and we would fall into the sun! History has shown that Newton was half right for the wrong reason and that Hooke was also half right -- also for the wrong reason -- light is both a particle and a wave but requires no medium to get from the sun to the earth. The concern over the sun's demise was also genuine, in the context of the times. Galileo had discovered those embarrassing spots on the sun in the beginning of the 17th century. By Swift's day speculations on the nature of the spots centered on the possibility that they were caused by sub-solar volcanic eruptions -- a form of smoke -- indicating that the sun was consuming itself up at a prodigious rate. Modern calculations confirm this. The sun's mass is reduced by something like four million metric tonnes every second! Had Swift's contemporaries known that they would have freaked. They knew nothing of course about nuclear energy in 1726. Lucky they did not - - a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The sun's gradual loss of mass through nuclear conversion, means that the gravitational attraction weakens over time - heralding a widening orbit and perhaps a spiraling away from the sun. The fear of comets was yet another source of genuine social anxiety. Employing Newton's newly expounded theory of universal gravitation Edmund Halley has forecasted that the comet of 1682 -- known now as Halley's comet -- would return in 1758. Remember Swift is writing here in 1726 and projecting in his reference to a Laputan comet 31 years in the future. That comet did, by the way, return -- spotted first on Christmas day in 1758 -- and became a source of universal amazement of the exactitude of Newton's science. In fact, it was a bit late, caused we know now, by the perturbing effects of the planets Uranus and Neptune which were undiscovered in Newton's day. The social anxiety around the comet's return was occasioned by none other than Halley himself who in 1694 had written a paper speculating that the biblical flood described in Genesis might have been occasioned by the shock from a near miss from a comet. Halley noted in his writing that a near miss could indeed reduce the earth to its "ancient chaos." It was nail biting time in Europe. Is there any wonder Swift enjoys playing on those fears? Swift has most of his fun playing with the work of the projectors at the Academy of Lagado. Their work is in the main drawn from real stuff but he takes real experiments a step beyond their original intent -- or combines -- cleverly -- work reported in two different experiments. The conversion of human excrement back into the original food was not one of those. That example was based on a work written by Rabelais called "Archasdarpenin." The novel building methods Swift talks about -- building from the roof down --was loosely written around architectural ideas advanced by Christopher Wren the designer of St. Paul's Cathedral. Surprisingly, the example of the blind projector who was able to feel colours was based on a real paper. In a condensed version of Robert Boyle's Philosophical Works published the year before Swift wrote, there is a report of a blind man at the city of Maestrict who could distinguish colours by the touch of his fingers. A careful series of experiments in which the man was given a collection of colored ribbons and blindfolded -- don't ask (he was supposed to be blind) -- confirmed the man's ability to identify the primary colors: red, blue, green and yellow, as well as black, white and gray. He described the feeling as being particularly acute in his right thumb and described the effect as due to "aspirations" from the material. Black felt like tingly points. Red felt smooth. There was actually some credible "science" here. Or there may have been. Boyle is skeptical about the feeling bit -- and ventured that the ability was due to the man's sensitivity -- not to colour -- but to the scents in the dyes used to colour the ribbons. He noticed that the blind man's capacity to detect colour was affected by eating. Dogs -- he also noticed had their sense of smell reduced after eating too. The story about spiders spinning naturally colored silk stockings also has some basis in fact but is a classic blending by Swift of two unrelated reports. In 1710 Emile Pons published an account called "The Silk of Spiders" in the Philosophical Transactions. His paper described how he actually made gloves and stockings from the threads that short legged spiders used to wrap around their eggs - not the webs used to weave their webs. He also offered that this spider material easily "took colour." The second source Swift uses here was one by a Dr. Hall who described in a 1708 paper how pismires (ants) in the East Indies could convert tree saps and natural gums into excrement - excrement that retained the natural colors of those saps. This conversion, Hall noted, was unique in nature and probably caused by a chemical conversion involving formic acid. It was Swift who tied the two ideas - spider silk to ant "poop," -- into the novel method for weaving naturally colored silk stockings. The story about converting calcine ice (hailstones) into gunpowder was based on a 1693 description, again in the Transactions, of investigations on the explosive noises made by the bursting of hailstones after being thrown into fire. The bursting was caused by the sudden fractures in the crystal structure of the ice, and I'm sure the original investigations were learning that - but Swift decided to place another spin -- due perhaps to an allusion in that same paper that some hailstones had dark matter at their centers. Swift decided to infer that the bursting and dark matter was connected - possibly a natural source of gunpowder? The wonderful research on sunbeams and cucumbers was derived from a 1693 paper by Halley on the "Circulation of Watery Vapours" and also a lot of other pioneering work at the time on the nature of light, heat and the respiration of plants. As satiric as that episode may have seemed to his 18th century audience, we know now that cucumbers do work like that - store solar energy through photosynthesis as plant material and release it as heat and food energy when it is consumed. Perhaps Swift knew this intuitively at the time? Swift's idea for using 600 hogs simultaneously furrowing and manuring a field was drawn from a 1702 paper on the Culturing of Tobacco in Zeylon where Buffaloes were used in a similar fashion. Swift's universal artist whose designs included the propagation of naked sheep may be directed at Robert Boyle. There's lots of other great stuff. One of my favorites is the random sentence fragment generator shown on p. 157. This marvelously clever computing device is eerily prophetic of a time - our time perhaps -- when society would place more value on "instrumental reason" than the more natural forces of reason at our disposal. The bits in Chapter VI on the political researches are clearly directed at Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan and the natural resemblance between - in Swift's words on p.160, the "strict universal Resemblance between the natural and political body." What better justification for carrying out political experiments drawn from this analogy? My favorite bit there was a proposal to sever and exchange the half brains of quarreling politicians leaving them to debate matters "between themselves within the space of one Skull!" Swift's description of experiments designed to analyze the odor, color, consistence, and taste! of human excrement as a means of detecting threats to the state is exquisite madness - Swift at his piercing best. "Men are never so serious, and intent, as when they are at Stool." Swift's visit to Glubbdubdrib - the island of sorcerers and magicians - - where he is able to call back the dead - is a transparent copy of Lucian of Samosata's True Histories where similar encounters with the dead were described. In his story Swift describes Homer - who legend had always treated as blind -- as having the most quick and piercing eyes I ever beheld." Lucian in his story written 1,500 years earlier says that he had no need to ask Homer if he was really blind for, "I could see for myself that he was nothing of the sort." Lucian - in this same episode also describes a fanciful voyage to the moon - a voyage that involved encounters with moon men every bit as strange and metamorphic as Swift's. Swift most certainly based much of his style on his. Whatever the validity of the criticisms of the Voyage to Laputa, its lack of unity, and multiplicity of themes, this adventure does paint a picture of an age which although optimistic and heady over its recent achievements, is clearly anxious about the future. Swift is clearly wistful for ancient virtues and solid values, and indicates so often, but I don't see this story as an injunction to regress. What he offers us is a series of cautions and warnings about modern times. The human project is off and running - Swift knows that - as much as a parent knows that the child who finally leaves the nest is not going to return. But like the young adult - incautious and fearless about taking on the world, Swift is shaking a finger at his age - be prudent - keep your head out of the clouds - look both ways before crossing the street - and above all -- remember your parents and those virtues we taught you!