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KRONOS Vol VIII, No. 4
JONATHAN SWIFT AND THE MOONS OF MARS
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
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.
THE STEEDS OF MARS
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:
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,
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:
Martin Gardner, writing in 1957, stated:
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:
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:
Another writer, R. de Witt Miller, touches upon the Swift-Hall issue by stating:
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".
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:
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".
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.
MARS IN COLLISION
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:
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.
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.
THE HEART OF THE PROBLEM
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:
Lamont's inquiry dealt with the three aspects of Swift's "prediction" which he believed merited an explanation:
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:
For the solution to the second aspect of Swift's "prediction", we return to Lamont:
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
Likewise, the period of the outer moon, which Swift had revolve around Mars in 21½ 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:
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
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
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 table that Brinton presented is reproduced below:
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:
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....
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:
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:
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.
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.
REFERENCES1. 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.
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.
23. H. C. Brinton, Sky and Telescope, Vol. 15 (Sept. 1956), p. 494.
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).