Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 3 (ctd.)

In the next excerpt Gulliver describes his visit to the Academy of Lagado, which is Swift’s spoof of the Royal Society. He sees there an engine which consists of hundreds of dice hanged on wires within a huge frame. Each piece is covered on all sides with labels on which all the words of the Laputan language are written; when his students turn at the same time forty handles attached to the ends of the wires, the blocks turn, creating new word combinations. Then some students read the lines and others take notes whenever anything resembling a meaningful sentence comes up. There are already many volumes filled with these broken phrases and the professor dreams of getting a grant for setting up five hundred such frames, so that the process may be speeded up. Thanks to this, he believes, everyone can write books on all subjects, even if they have no talent whatsoever.

Gulliver is very impressed with this and promises the professor to describe his machine when he comes back home, giving him full credit. Then he is introduced to other professors who try to reform language. Some suggest cutting down all polysyllables and getting rid of verbs, because actually all words are nouns. Others go even further and suggest we should get rid of speech at all, because every word we say has some small corrosive effect on our lungs. Instead, we should just carry all the thing we want to talk about and just produce them. The only drawback of this ingenious plan is that, while for a short discourse you can carry everything you need in your pockets, for longer conversations you need huge bags, and even one or two servants to carry them. The scheme was never implemented due to the protests of women and common people, but some radical philosophers do practise this method, carrying all the signifieds on their backs in huge bags, like pedlars in England.

Finally Gulliver meets some mathematics professors who try to teach their pupils by making them consume wafers covered with formulas written in sepia ink. They need to be eaten on an empty stomach and nothing can be eaten but bread and water for three days afterwards. The idea is that as the wafer is digested, the vapours of knowledge contained on it should go to the pupil’s head. However, this scheme doesn’t quite work, partly because, as the professors claim, most students find the wafers so disgusting they throw up immediately after eating them, or they do not adhere to the prescribed diet.


Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 3 (ctd.)

The Laputans are extremely preoccupied by their fears of various cosmic catastrophes and it’s the first thing they talk about when they meet in the morning, like boys who love to hear and tell scary stories. Their women have high libidos and they often take lovers from among the people who arrive from the bottom part of the country. They can do so with impudence, because their husbands notice nothing as long as they have their paper and writing implements, and their flappers do not wake them up. The women of Laputa often complain that they are confined to the island and long for the metropolitan life of Lagado, even though the island is a very pleasant place and they lack for nothing. They must not go down unless by a special permission of the King, which is very rarely granted, because they know how hard it is induce a woman, once she gets down, to come back. As an example Gulliver quotes the story of the wife of the prime minister, who had children, palace, and all the luxury she could wish for. She asked for a permission to go down for health reasons and then disappeared. When she was found, she was in an inn, where she has pawned all her clothes to support her lover, an old disfigured footman who beat her. She had to be dragged from him by force and even though her husband took her back and didn’t reproach her, on the first opportunity she ran away again, taking with her all her jewels, and was never found. Gulliver says it’s a story that sounds similar to many European ones, because the whole womankind shares this capricious nature. After a month, when he became more fluent in their language, he was invited by the King to tell him about other countries, but the King is interested only in their mathematical achievements and is rather bored by everything else Gulliver has to say.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 3 (ctd.)

There is a passage about the etymology of the name “Laputa”, with the local scientists suggesting one etymology, and Gulliver another, but this is of course a joke about them missing  the most obvious origins of the name. Gulliver needs new clothes and the tailor sent to him doesn’t take his measure as tailors do in Europe, but he measures his height using a quadrant and calculates his other dimensions by using some advanced maths. When he brings his clothes, they turn out to be very ill-fitting, because he made a tiny mistake in his calculations. This, however, doesn’t worry Gulliver, since a lot of people in this country seem to have the same problem. Similarly, their houses are very clumsily built, because they despise practical geometry.

The King ordered his island to fly to Lagado, the capital of his country located on the stable land. On his way he stops over several places and collects petitions from his subjects, which they tie to the ends of packthreads rolled down for that purpose. They look like kite strings, observes Gulliver, which is according to the Helpful Footnote an allusion to they saying “go fly a kite” and also to George I’s frequent absences when he went to Hannover. On his way there the King organizes a concert lasting three hours, in which he participates. Gulliver finds it very noisy, but it’s explained to him that native Laputans are accustomed to hearing the music of the spheres in any music they listen to. The Laputans are very fond of talking about politics, in this way reminding Gulliver about mathematicians in his own country, perhaps because, as he observes, people are most fond of talking about the things they are least qualified for. They are also extremely afraid of things which don’t bother people elsewhere, like that the sun may go out, or the earth is going to be hit by a comet. (Well, the sun indeed is going to go out one day, so…) They are so obsessed with mathematics that they praise “the beauty of a woman, or any other animal” (!) in geometrical terms.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 3

Part 3 is only excerpted in the NAEL, probably because it’s the least interesting for the modern reader. Maybe it’s because Swift missed his mark so widely, choosing as the object of his satire modern science as engrossed with fruitless speculation. Sure, a lot of 18th-c. science, just like a lot of modern one, was a dead-end, but in the end it’s the greats who are remembered centuries later. Gulliver, this time not shipwrecked, but set adrift on the sea by pirates, is rescued by the inhabitants of Laputa, a flying island. (If the name of the island sounds rude to you, perhaps Swift meant it to be. Martin Luther called reason a whore.) They all marvel at him and he at them: they all cock their heads to one side, with one eye looking at the sky ant the other down, and their clothes are all ornamented with the images of geometrical figures and musical instruments. All the wealthier people are also accompanied by special servants carrying sticks with bladders full of peas or small pebbles, with which they hit their masters periodically on the mouth and on the ear during any conversations. The Laputans are the prototypical absent-minded scientists and without this device they are quite prone to forget who they are talking to and what about. They take him to their king, who is deep into solving a mathematical dilemma and doesn’t notice them until he’s done with it, and then only when one of his pages hits him. The king then notices Gulliver, about whose arrival he’s already been informed and addresses him. The page then hits Gulliver, but he signs to them that he doesn’t need this device. As he learns later, this lowered him very much in the estimation of the Laputans. When the King realizes they can’t find a common language, he sends Gulliver to another room to have his dinner, because the King is very hospitable to strangers. (The Helpful Footnote interprets it as a barb against George I, a patron of science and art, who filled his court with people from Hannover, but this allusion seems rather vague to me.) At dinner Gulliver is accompanied by several noblemen, whom he asks about the names of various objects and gets the hang of the language. After dinner, a special man is sent with books, paper and ink to teach Gulliver their language. With his help, Gulliver compiles a rather sizeable dictionary, including also (of course) the names of various geometrical figures and musical instruments. He also notes down some sample sentences and within a few days starts to manage basic communication. On a side note, it only struck me now how funny the title of Part 3 is, putting side by side the names of several fictitious countries and ending with “… and Japan”. As far as I remember, Japan is mentioned only in passing at the end of this part.

Isaac Newton – “A Letter… Containing His New Theory about Light and Colours” (fragments)

This one’s gonna be really short, but I could not get any more physics into my head yesterday. Newton concludes that colour is not some kind of intrinsic quality of substances but is caused by light reflection. Red objects reflect more red light than other in the spectrum, blue objects reflect more blue etc. He proved it by putting unadulterated light of one colour on some objects and he found that red objects remain red, regardless of the light thrown at them, they only appear redder in red light. This brings him to the conclusion that light in fact may be a kind of substance as well, and colours are a kind of embodiment of this substance. But as always in science, one answer produces even more questions. What exactly is light? How does it produce the effect of colour in our minds? Newton refuses to answer these questions, writing “I shall not mingle conjectures with certainties.”

Isaac Newton – “A Letter… Containing His New Theory about Light and Colours” (fragments)

I am not so sure about this one.  I understand that the editors of the NAEL wanted to give the readers some background in the nascent Enlightenment science and make us acquainted with Newton’s “crisp and vigorous English” (even though he wrote most of his text in Latin, the then common language of international science), but I still think it’s ovestretching the definition of literature. The fragments from Newton’s letter to the Royal Society describes his famous experiments with the prism, about which there are umpteenth excellent videos on the web (Khan Academy and others) so I am not quite sure if it makes sense for me to summarize it, especially since Newton’s crisp English is not clear enough for me, a physics blockhead. But I’ll try.

Newton buys a prism, whose ability to produce rainbows was known earlier, but he tries to get past the entertainment value and figure out how it works. He wonders why the bars of colour are oblong, if basing on what was believed then about the nature of light, they should be round, and why the produced rectangle is five times as long as it is broad. He tries to put the prism in different positions, or varying the size of the holes through which the ray of light is let in, or putting the prism behind the hole instead in front of it, but the results are always the same. He then tries two prisms, thinking that if the first one has some irregularities in it, the second one should amplify it. But all the second prism does is to make the ray of light circular again. He then takes two boards with small holes in them and puts two prisms in front of these holes at a distance of about 12 feet. When he turns the first prism around so that only a part of the spectrum reaches the second hole and what comes out from the other hole is a uniform ray of light in the colour near the end of the spectrum caught by the first prism. I am not sure if I describe it well – I could not myself quite get it until I saw this image I’m posting below. Anyway, this leads Newton to the conclusion that the ray of white light consists of all colours, just “differently refrangible”.

Newton's "crucial experiment"
Image credit: Helen Klus/CC-NC-SA.