Gulliver, Recommended for Scientists

The airborne island of Laputa


Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who has found ways to popularize science, recently told Vox that his favorite book to recommend is Gulliver’s Travels, which has caused my respect for him to climb another couple of notches. That’s because he might well have in mind Book III, where Swift satirizes scientists and abstract mathematicians. Tyson says that, while most people know the voyage to Lilliput, “the real satire and insights into human nature come from Gulliver’s other voyages.”

Tyson strikes me as a scientist who has a grounded vision of his field, which is what makes him a great spokesperson. He knows how to connect to the questions and concerns of his audience and doesn’t get lost in the clouds. The scientists and thinkers in Gulliver’s Travel do not have his humility, believing rather that they are above everyone else.

This is particularly true of the Laputans, who are literally above everyone else as they live on a flying island. Being above the earth functions as a metaphor for being detached from reality, as can be seen in the way they converse:

The knowledge I had in mathematics, gave me great assistance in acquiring their phraseology, which depended much upon that science, and music; and in the latter I was not unskilled.  Their ideas are perpetually conversant in lines and figures.  If they would, for example, praise the beauty of a woman, or any other animal, they describe it by rhombs, circles, parallelograms, ellipses, and other geometrical terms, or by words of art drawn from music, needless here to repeat.  I observed in the king’s kitchen all sorts of mathematical and musical instruments, after the figures of which they cut up the joints that were served to his majesty’s table.

As elevated as this may seem, it has disastrous consequences for their practical lives:

Their houses are very ill built, the walls bevel, without one right angle in any apartment; and this defect arises from the contempt they bear to practical geometry, which they despise as vulgar and mechanic; those instructions they give being too refined for the intellects of their workmen, which occasions perpetual mistakes.  And although they are dexterous enough upon a piece of paper, in the management of the rule, the pencil, and the divider, yet in the common actions and behavior of life, I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people, nor so slow and perplexed in their conceptions upon all other subjects, except those of mathematics and music.  They are very bad reasoners, and vehemently given to opposition, unless when they happen to be of the right opinion, which is seldom their case.  Imagination, fancy, and invention, they are wholly strangers to, nor have any words in their language, by which those ideas can be expressed; the whole compass of their thoughts and mind being shut up within the two forementioned sciences.

Their impracticality extends to going about their daily business since they often get lost in their thoughts:

It seems the minds of these people are so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused by some external action upon the organs of speech and hearing; for which reason, those persons who are able to afford it always keep a flapper (the original is climenole) in their family, as one of their domestics; nor ever walk abroad, or make visits, without him.  And the business of this officer is, when two, three, or more persons are in company, gently to strike with his bladder the mouth of him who is to speak, and the right ear of him or them to whom the speaker addresses himself.  This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap on his eyes; because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation, that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post; and in the streets, of jostling others, or being jostled himself into the kennel.

Down on earth, the Laputans have a special science academy where, again, they are more interested in abstract schemes than practical experiments. To see where Swift’s own interests lie, we must go to Book II, where the large-minded giant king

gave it for his opinion, “that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”

Nothing so practical guides the scientists at the academy. For instance:

The first man I saw was of a meager aspect, with sooty hands and face, his hair and beard long, ragged, and singed in several places.  His clothes, shirt, and skin, were all of the same color.  He has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers.  He told me, he did not doubt, that, in eight years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate: but he complained that his stock was low, and entreated me “to give him something as an encouragement to ingenuity, especially since this had been a very dear season for cucumbers.”  I made him a small present, for my lord had furnished me with money on purpose, because he knew their practice of begging from all who go to see them.

He sounds like a scientist looking for grant money.

There are, to be sure, problems with science and mathematics that are driven only by practical concerns. Swift, brilliant satirist that he is, lets no one off the hook. The pragmatic Houyhnhnms, for instance, eschew abstraction altogether, with the result that their society lacks love or a sense of wonder. They are also only too willing, as a practical matter, to casually exterminate the Yahoos.

Tyson is a scientist open to self examination. Swift would approve.

Further thought: I can only imagine Swift’s response to a recent article in the New Yorker about Silicon Valley billionaires who are searching for ways to live forever. Swift warns us to be careful about what we wish for in his account of the struldbrugs, people born with an immortality gene.

Like the Silicon Valley billionaires, we first think that these people are the lucky ones. Gulliver discusses why immortality seems like a blessing:

I answered, “it was easy to be eloquent on so copious and delightful a subject, especially to me, who had been often apt to amuse myself with visions of what I should do, if I were a king, a general, or a great lord: and upon this very case, I had frequently run over the whole system how I should employ myself, and pass the time, if I were sure to live for ever.

“That, if it had been my good fortune to come into the world a struldbrug, as soon as I could discover my own happiness, by understanding the difference between life and death, I would first resolve, by all arts and methods, whatsoever, to procure myself riches.  In the pursuit of which, by thrift and management, I might reasonably expect, in about two hundred years, to be the wealthiest man in the kingdom.  In the second place, I would, from my earliest youth, apply myself to the study of arts and sciences, by which I should arrive in time to excel all others in learning.  Lastly, I would carefully record every action and event of consequence, that happened in the public, impartially draw the characters of the several successions of princes and great ministers of state, with my own observations on every point.  I would exactly set down the several changes in customs, language, fashions of dress, diet, and diversions.  By all which acquirements, I should be a living treasure of knowledge and wisdom, and certainly become the oracle of the nation.”

Swift then touches on issues that none of the billionaires are discussing. Gulliver learns that being born a struldbrug is instead a curse:

[Gulliver’s guide] said, “they commonly acted like mortals till about thirty years old; after which, by degrees, they grew melancholy and dejected, increasing in both till they came to fourscore.  This he learned from their own confession: for otherwise, there not being above two or three of that species born in an age, they were too few to form a general observation by.  When they came to fourscore years, which is reckoned the extremity of living in this country, they had not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying.  They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grandchildren.  Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions.  But those objects against which their envy seems principally directed, are the vices of the younger sort and the deaths of the old.  By reflecting on the former, they find themselves cut off from all possibility of pleasure; and whenever they see a funeral, they lament and repine that others have gone to a harbor of rest to which they themselves never can hope to arrive.  They have no remembrance of anything but what they learned and observed in their youth and middle-age, and even that is very imperfect; and for the truth or particulars of any fact, it is safer to depend on common tradition, than upon their best recollections.  The least miserable among them appear to be those who turn to dotage, and entirely lose their memories; these meet with more pity and assistance, because they want many bad qualities which abound in others.

I can easily imagine some of the Silicon Valley billionaires, were they to achieve their end, progressing in exactly this way.

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