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Open letter to science editors




KEN D. Moss


While reading Jonathan Swift's famous novel some years ago, I recalled Immanuel Velikovsky's hint concerning the notion that Swift might have possessed some unknown and ancient manuscript from which he could have obtained his information about the moons of Mars.(1) It was therefore with some excitement when, in the same book, I came across descriptions of "Flying Islands" coupled with the Laputans' "dread in the celestial bodies". My excitement grew as I continued to read of instances during which it was described that there was "no more light in the world" and "that the earth very narrowly escaped a brush from the tail of the last comet". The clincher came when I found it stated that the Laputans "are at the same time pelted from above with great stones, against which they have no defence but by creeping into cellars or caves". It occurred to me that Velikovsky might have missed a golden opportunity when he failed to elaborate further on Swift's manuscript, since it appeared obvious to me that these statements must refer to the catastrophes described in his Worlds in Collision.

It is ironical, therefore, that in my attempt to bolster Velikovsky's hypothesis on this point, the exact opposite result came about. But perhaps it is only fitting since Swift was, first and foremost, a satirist who loved bursting other people's bubbles.


One can hardly delve into Martian lore without Swift's name popping up as soon as the Martian satellites are mentioned. I am, of course, referring to Swift's "prediction" concerning the existence of the two moons of Mars, 150 years before they were actually discovered by an astronomer's telescope. Swift's "prediction" is to be found in the third chapter of the "Voyage to Laputa", one of the tales contained in his Gulliver's Travels, originally published on October 28, 1726.

Had this been all there was to it, one might reasonably assume that Swift was merely fortunate in having made one of those lucky guesses with which the history of science is replete. But he seems to have added meat to the bone by giving a surprisingly accurate description of both moons' distance from the planet Mars as well as their respective periods of revolution. It was the near exactitude of these "calculations" which earned Swift, the satirist, a place (albeit often just a footnote) in astronomical and other scientific texts.

Swift's famous paragraph consists of a statement made by the hero of the voyages, Lemuel Gulliver, concerning the knowledge of the astronomers of the imaginary island of Laputa. It reads:

"They have likewise discovered two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve about Mars, whereof the innermost is distant from the center of the primary planet exactly three of his diameters, and the outermost five; the former revolves in the space of ten hours, and the latter in twenty-one and an half; so that the squares of their periodical times are very near in the same proportion with the cubes of their distance from the center of Mars, which evidently shows them to be governed by the same law of gravitation that influences the other heavenly bodies. " (2)

The above few lines nestled quite comfortably among Swift's other words for a century and a half until Asaph Hall, an astronomer at the U. S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D. C., set his sights and his 26-inch refracting telescope upon Mars. The year was 1877 and the planet Mars was in major opposition.

After many nights of difficult work, during which Mother Nature attempted to shield her secret behind a veil of terrestrial clouds, Hall discovered Mars' outer satellite. It was August 11. On the 1 7th of the same month, Mars' inner moon was discovered. On the suggestion of Mr. Madan of Eton, Hall later named the satellites Phobos (Greek for Rout or Panic) and Deimos (Fear or Terror) in honor of the steeds which, as related in Homer's Iliad,(3) drew the chariot of Ares (the Greek Mars).

It was thus that Hall gave reality to Swift's fictitious moons. And as if this were not enough, it was also discovered that Mars' moons orbited very close to the planet exactly as "predicted" by Swift. The one item which has really intrigued writers since then, however, was that Phobos did indeed have a most startling and hitherto unthinkable rapid periodicity again as expounded by Swift's fictitious Laputan astronomers .

Asaph Hall himself wrote:

"For several days the inner moon (Phobos) was a puzzle. It would appear on different sides of the planet in the same night, and at first I thought there were two or three inner moons, since it seemed . . . improbable that a satellite should revolve around its primary (i.e. parent planet) in less time than that in which the primary rotates. To decide this point I watched this moon throughout the nights of August 20 and 21, and saw that there was in fact but one inner moon, which made its revolution around the primary in less than one-third the time of the primary's revolution, a case unique in our solar system."(4)

Martin Gardner, writing in 1957, stated:

"[Phobos] is the only known body in the universe that revolves around a central body faster than the central body rotates, yet this fact is included in Swift's brief description! " (5)

Ever since Hall's discovery, Swift has been given the additional appellation of "wizard" by some, "prophet" by others and one suspects that even the odd scientist must have mumbled an "I'll be damned!".

For some samples of latter-day reactions to this confirmation (or coincidence, as some prefer), I direct attention to the following:

Erich von Daniken, in his much debated book, Chariots of the Gods?, wrote:

"How could Swift describe the Martian satellites when they were not discovered until 150 years later? Undoubtedly the Martian satellites were suspected by some astronomers before Swift, but suspicions are not nearly enough for such precise data. We do not know where Swift got his knowledge."(6)

Although he stops there, and although in the great tradition of all worthy scientists he does not draw any hasty conclusions, the reader cannot fail but realize that von Daniken actually assumes that Swift obtained his facts, directly or indirectly, from some ancient spaceman. It is also possible that von Daniken himself might have obtained the information on Swift directly from Velikovsky before he fitted it into his own theory, but that this erstwhile writer couldn't have understood much of Velikovsky's thesis is confirmed when he states:

"Immanuel Velikovsky declared that a giant comet had crashed into Mars and that Venus had been formed as a result of this collision [sic] ."(7)

Another writer, R. de Witt Miller, touches upon the Swift-Hall issue by stating:

"Where Jonathan Swift got the astronomy he included in his Gulliver's Travels is a problem."(8)

Although Miller adds no pet theory of his own, the fact that Swift is included in his book, Impossible Yet it Happened, does imply that the writer believes in something other than a simple coincidence behind the Laputans' astronomical knowledge.

The authors of The Morning of the Magicians offer a unique hypothesis that, while more down to Earth than von Daniken's (if you'll excuse the pun), is at the same time just as inspiring of disbelief.

Quoting Goethe's statement that "coming events cast their shadow before", Pauwels and Bergier wonder if there might not be "undercurrents in which the future is reflected".(9) By this they meant that Swift may have unconsciously been in contact with some "power current" by means of a time-space warp which induced in him a flash of precognition. According to them, Swift would have simply written the truth before that truth had become consciously known.

This idea, which can be thought of as connected to Jung's synchronicity principle, has gained much popularity in recent times due to the increased scientific interest in precognitive states and psi fields. Thus one may be tempted to give it some serious thought. However, like von Daniken, Pauwels and Bergier quickly proceed to damage their own credibility by proffering a datum which not only has no basis in fact but which is steeped in ridiculousness:

"When the American astronomer, Asaph Hall, discovered [the moons] in 1877 and noticed that his calculations corresponded to Swift's indications, he was seized with a sort of panic and named them Phobos and Deimos: Fear and Terror [sic] ."(10)

Personally, I have a hard time imagining a trained astronomer being seized by anything (except, perhaps, by a feeling of infallibility), let alone panic! Where Pauwels and Bergier dug up this juicy item during their reported five years of research I have no idea but I seriously doubt that another five years' research by anyone would ever confirm it.

Hall did not name the satellites until several days or weeks after their discovery and, as previously noted, this was done on the suggestion of another person. In fact Hall himself noted that although Phobos and Deimos "are usually taken to be the names of the steeds that pulled Mars' chariot . . . Bryant's translation of the fifteenth book of Homer's Iliad identified Phobos and Deimos as attendants or sons of Mars whom he summoned to yoke his steeds".(11)

Although I've quoted mainly from what would be considered pseudo-scientific or cultist works in the brief review above, many orthodox science books also mention the Swift-Hall case. The only difference between these two types of works seems to be that orthodox descriptions of the event are, to put it mildly, somewhat more restrained and rarely accompanied by an attempted explanation. Astronomers seem generally content to leave it to the reader to search between the lines and wonder.


We come now to the views of Immanuel Velikovsky.

In Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky discussed the Swift-Hall incident in a two-page section entitled "The Steeds of Mars". The relevant statements, in their proper sequence, are the following:

"With the optical instruments of the days of Swift, they [Mars' moons] could not have been seen, and neither Newton nor Halley, the contemporaries of Swift, nor William Herschel in the eighteenth or Leverrier in the nineteenth century suspected their existence. It was bold of Swift to assume their very short periods of revolution (months), measured only in hours; it was a very rare coincidence, indeed, if Swift invented these satellites, guessing correctly not only their existence, but also their number (two), and especially their very short revolutions. This passage in Swift aroused the literary critics' wonder.

"It is an even chance that Swift invented the two satellites of Mars and thus by a rare accident came close to the truth. But it may have been that Swift had read about the trabants in some text not known to us or to his contemporaries. The fact is that Homer knew about the 'two steeds of Mars' that drew his chariot; Virgil also wrote about them....

"Whether or not Swift borrowed his knowledge of the existence of two trabants of Mars from some ancient astrological work, the ancient poets knew of the existence of the satellites of Mars."(12)

Despite Velikovsky's "even chance", which is sandwiched between "a very rare coincidence" and "a rare accident", it comes across to the reader that he personally favored the mysterious and imaginatively titillating solution of Swift having obtained his information from some dry and aged text that he alone knew of and that was lost again in the mists of time.

Velikovsky's statement that "William Herschel in the eighteenth century" did not suspect the existence of Mars' satellites is somewhat misleading because, according to Franklyn Cole, Herschel in fact had tried, even though unsuccessfully, to find the Martian satellites in 1783.(13) Obviously, one does not try to find something that one does not suspect exists.

Although I have the greatest respect for Velikovsky I feel that, in this instance, he has merely added to the mountain of speculations and not cut through to the heart of the problem.

As we return to the side of science and rationality (two concepts which, unfortunately, are not always synonymous), we are of course still left with the question with which we started: How did Swift arrive at his information or inspiration?

As followers of the Velikovsky controversy know only too well, scientists get very upset when an outsider makes a prediction that is later confirmed. Their explanations of such occurrences usually run along these lines:

1 ) X did not really make the prediction at all but stole it from scientist Y; 2) X made a dumb but lucky guess; 3) X only came close, and close only counts in horseshoes and handgrenades; or 4) it has been known to the knowledgeable that X really was a scientist in his own right.

A similar reaction resulted in this case except that it was rather singular that all of the above explanations were made to apply - depending on whom one read.


When Mars moved close to the Earth in the summer of 1924, several newspapers resurrected the story of Swift's "prediction". This led Roscoe Lamont to write an article for Popular Astronomy in which he stated that:

"Exclamations such as 'Marvelous!' 'Was Swift a Wizard?' 'A Second Mother Shipton!' led me to make a little inquiry into the matter with the following result."(14)

Lamont's inquiry dealt with the three aspects of Swift's "prediction" which he believed merited an explanation:

1) What made Swift give Mars two moons?
2) What made him place them at three and five diameters from Mars?
3) What induced him to have the nearest moon revolve about Mars in ten hours with the outer one in twenty one and a half hours?

Lamont's solution, which was later independently supported (with some variations) by others, was as follows:

It was, first of all, quite obvious that Swift was very familiar with Kepler's astronomical theories. This is evidenced by the fact that Swift placed Mars' satellites in such a way that "the squares of their periodical times are very near in the same proportion with the cubes of their distance from the center of Mars". This statement by Swift should have been sufficient to dispel the wonder of those later literary critics since it is nothing but a rephrasing of Kepler's Third Law, published in 1618.

Furthermore, in 1610 - that is 116 years before Swift penned his Gulliver's Travels and after Galileo had discovered the first four satellites revolving around Jupiter Kepler had already published his belief that Mars would probably be found to possess two satellites of its own. As Cole relates in Fundamental Astronomy:

"[Kepler's] prediction, of course, was correct but its basis was anything but scientific. The anomalous gap between Mars and Jupiter led Kepler to speculate that another planet might be orbiting in the void. If so, the planet ought to have 3 satellites. According to Kepler this would yield a simple progression from I terrestrial satellite to 2 (postulated) for Mars, 3 (also postulated) for a hypothetical planet and 4 satellites for Jupiter."(15)

For the solution to the second aspect of Swift's "prediction", we return to Lamont:

"The reason why Swift took the distances of the moons from the center of Mars as 3 and 5 times the planet's diameter was probably this: He had read in David Gregory's astronomy, published in 1713 (Vol. 1, page 25, of the second edition of 1726), the following about Jupiter's satellites: 'Jupiter has four; the innermost of which revolves . . . at a distance of 5-2/3 semi-diameters of Jupiter from his center; the second . . . at a distance of 9 semi-diameters.' 5-2/3 and 9 semi-diameters are 2-5/6 and 4 diameters, so Swift took those of Mars as 3 and 5."(16)

The solution to the third and final aspect of the problem would have been solved for Swift by simply following Kepler's Third Law. Once Swift knew Mars' diameter, all he had to do was plug in his hypothetical distances of 3 and 5 to arrive at a scientifically stable periodicity for them. Although modern astronomers calculate Mars' diameter at 4219 miles (6794)(17) Lamont points out that:

". . . in Swift's time this length [sic] was not very accurately known, and in Roger Long's Astronomy, Vol. 1, page 339, published in 1742, the diameter of Mars is given as 4800 miles. Three times this is 14,400 miles. Suppose another moon to revolve about the earth at a distance from the center of the earth of 14,400 miles. Our present moon revolves in 27-1/3 days at a distance of 238,840 miles. How long would it take another moon to go around the earth at a distance of 14,400 miles from the earth's center? By applying Kepler's Third Law which the Laputans used in such cases . . . x is found to equal .4046 days or 9 hours 43 minutes, nearly 10 hours. Why then should not a moon revolve around Mars in 10 hours at a distance from its center of 14,400 miles? It wouldn't do it, but the Laputans may have thought it would. Gulliver says of the Laputans, in Chapter II, 'They are very bad reasoners,' and so they may have made the inner moon revolve around Mars in 10 hours because it would do the same thing around the earth at the same distance."(18)

Likewise, the period of the outer moon, which Swift had revolve around Mars in 21 hours, does work out, according to Kepler's equation, to be 21 hours,30 minutes, and 59.6 seconds.

Twelve years after Lamont, another pair of researchers proposed a similar theory. In 1937, Marjorie Nicolson and Nora M. Mohler wrote a delightful article in the Annals of Science (II) suitably entitled "The Scientific Background of Swift's 'Voyage to Laputa' ". They introduce their topic by stating:

"The attempt of this study will be to show that Swift borrowed for the 'Voyage to Laputa' even more than for the other tales, but that the sources of his borrowings were different. The mathematicians who feared the sun and comet, the projectors of the Grand Academy, the Flying Island these came to Swift almost entirely from contemporary science. The sources for nearly all the theories of the Laputans and the Balnibarbians are to be found in the work of Swift's contemporary scientists and particularly in the 'Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society'."(19)

In their search for Swift's possible sources the authors became convinced that Swift must have written the scientific sections of the Laputa story in the same year that it was published, i.e. 1726, because he incorporated many ideas into the tale which were published in scientific journals during that year.

Like Lamont before them, Nicolson and Mohler disagreed with those who had found Swift's utterances on Mars and its moons as being in the realms of the wondrous and/or mysterious. They ended up by stating " ... we are forced to the conclusion that it was only a happy guess".(20) Their particular explanation was stated as follows:

"Our own planet was known to have one satellite; Galileo had discovered four about Jupiter in Swift's time; Cassini had published his conclusions in regard to the five satellites of Saturn. Swift, using no telescope but his imagination, chose two satellites for Mars, the smallest number by which he could easily indicate their obedience to Kepler's laws, a necessity clearly shown him by Cassini; this number fits neatly between the one satellite of the Earth and the four for Jupiter. To indicate the Keplerian ratio, he has made one of the simplest assumptions concerning distances and period, that of 3:5 for the distances, and 10 for the period of the inner satellite. It was not a difficult computation even for Swift, who was not a mathematician, to work out the necessary period of the outer satellite. (33 :53 = 102 :x). His trick [sic] proved approximately correct though it might easily have been incorrect."(21)

Should the reader be interested in the references that Swift utilized for his other startling descriptions in his "Voyage to Laputa", Nicolson's and Mohler's article is easily available as it was reprinted as a separate chapter in Professor Nicolson's book Science and Imagination.(22) The article, or chapter, is forty-four pages in length, containing an average of two referential notes per page, is full of fascinating information and is a dramatic example of how much one man's wisdom and/or imagination can really be a product of that of his forerunners and contemporaries.

Back to the subject at hand, and at the risk of repetition, I will quote one more theorist. Although Henry Brinton, unlike Lamont, Nicolson, and Mohler, wrote his piece after Worlds in Collision had already appeared in print, it is he who adds the frosting to the cake.

Writing in Sky and Telescope in 1956, Brinton stated:

"The rough numerical correspondence between the pretended data of the Laputan astronomers and the properties of the true satellites is striking. But this is not all. Swift's satellites also move in accord with Kepler's third law. When applied to several moons of the same planet this law states that the ratio of the cube of the distance to the square of the period must be the same for all of them. And indeed, this ratio is 0.27 for both of Swift's satellites, with the units used in the table, " (23)

The table that Brinton presented is reproduced below:

Satellite Distance from Mars' center Period of Revolution

Swift Hall Swift Hall
Inner (Phobos) 3 diam. 1.38 diam. 10 hrs. 7h. 39 min.
Outer (Deimos) 5 diam. 3.46 diam. 21 hrs. 30h. 18 min.

As can be seen, Brinton was not exaggerating when he alluded to this numerical correspondence as "rough".


The final question is: Is it likely that Swift arrived at his calculations in the manner these various authors (with some variations between them) suggested? And could he have accomplished it on his own?

The last quoted writer, Brinton, also stated that:

"The very nature of Swift tells us that he was not a scientist. At no time was he occupied with scientific pursuits. "(24)

However, he very quickly comes close to contradicting himself, and thereby drawing nearer to Nicolson's viewpoint, because in his next two paragraphs we read:

"Among Swift's sources were the 'Philosophical Transactions' of the Royal Society, which kept pace with contemporary science, and from them he incorporated many ideas into his own works....

"Swift described the Laputan astronomers' cave as a sunken area where a 'great variety of sextants, quadrants, telescopes, astrolabes, and other astronomical instruments' were stored. He is believed to have based this description on his own visit to the Royal Observatory in Paris. This institution had just such caves for laboratory experiments . "(25)

We can see then that Swift was indeed "occupied with scientific pursuits". His data on Mars' satellites were easily obtainable from several sources at the very time of his writing. It therefore seems somewhat strange that, like his predecessors, Brinton also came to the conclusion that "everything considered, it seems reasonable to attribute Swift's Martian satellite prediction to pure chance". If chance it was, it was definitely fed by the scientific knowledge of his day.

The British astronomer, Sir Robert Ball, in a 1908 letter, stated his belief that Swift could not have worked out his own computations but relied on his friend, Dr. Arbuthnot, to work out the mathematics for him. (Dr. Arbuthnot was the physician to Queen Anne and has been described as "a man of deep learning", "a learned scientist", and even "the most universal genius".) According to Ball:

"Had Swift consulted an average astronomer he would have been told, 'Oh, yes, certainly, let Mars have two moons. That is quite reasonable, but the ten-hour period [for Phobos] is preposterously short . . .' The fortunate circumstance was that Swift drew on his own genius and not on the scientific conventions."(26)

Whether or not the astronomer Carl Sagan was aware of these previous hypotheses he, for once, was capable of a valid contribution toward the Velikovsky controversy. While discussing the moons of Mars in his book The Cosmic Connection, and after being obliged to give his own rendition of the Laputan incident, he unwittingly summed up the results of my own research with two simple and direct statements:

"There is an entire genre of writing on how it was that Swift knew about the moons of Mars, including the suggestion that he was a Martian. Internal evidence suggests that Swift was no Martian, and the two moons can almost certainly be traced directly back to Kepler's speculations "(27)

Of course Sagan seems to have forgotten that back in 1966, in a work which he co-authored with the Russian scientist I. S. Shklovskii, he had, unwittingly or not, subscribed to the belief that one of Mars' satellites, namely Phobos, must be hollow and that it must therefore be an artificial moon.(28)

In conclusion may I say that, although the Swift-Hall incident constitutes a minor point in Velikovsky's thesis, it is nevertheless important to take note of the fact that Velikovsky's view in this matter does not correspond with the facts as they appear to be. Also, as this article has shown, one can hardly pick up a book, whether it be a pseudo-scientific cultist paperback or a modern astronomical text, where the Swift "prediction" is not mentioned without a whiff of the mysterious exuding from the page.

As such, it is my hope that the matter will now be laid to rest as it should properly have been after Lamont's "little inquiry" of 1925.


1. I. Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision (N. Y., 1950), p.280.
2. J. Swift, Gulliver's Travels (1726), Part III, Chapter III. (NOTE: Page numbers obviously differ in different editions.)
3. Homer,Iliad, xv,119.
4. S. Glasstone, The Book of Mars (Washington,1968), p. 70.
5. M. Gardner,Fadsand Fallacies in the Name of Science (N. Y., 1957), p. 31.
6. E. von Däniken, Chariots of the Gods? (N. Y.,1971), p. 127.
7. Ibid., p. 129.
8. R. de Witt Miller, Impossible - Yet it Happened (N. Y., 1947), p. 108.
9. L. Pauwels & J. Bergier, The Morning of the Magicians (N . Y., 1969), p. 202.
10. Ibid.
11. F. Cole, Fundamental Astronomy (N. Y., 1974), p. 209.
12. I. Velikovsky, op. cit., pp.279-280.
13. F.Cole, loc.cit.
14. R. Lamont, "The Moons of Mars," Popular Astronomy, Vol. 33 (1925), p. 496.
15. F. Cole, op. cit, p. 208.
16. R. Lamont, op. cit., p. 497. (NOTE: Although Lamont's passage is quoted correctly, the 1st edition of Gregory's work was published in 1702 and not 1713. In that edition, the pertinent page number would be 26 and not 25.)
17. R. A. Gallant, Our Universe (Washington, 1980), p.42.
18. R. Lamont, loc. cit.
19. M. Nicolson & N. M. Mohler, "The Scientific Background of Swift's 'Voyage to Laputa'," Annals of Science, II (1937); M . Nicolson, Science and Imagination (N. Y., 1956), p. 112.
20. Ibid., pp. 123-124.
21. Ibid., p. 124.
22. Ibid.
23. H. C. Brinton, Sky and Telescope, Vol. 15 (Sept. 1956), p. 494.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid.
26. R. Lamont, op. cit., p 498.
27. C. Sagan, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective (N. Y., 1973), pp. 104-105.
28. C. Sagan & I. S. Shklovskii, Intelligent Life in the Universe (N. Y., 1966).

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