The Academy of Lagado Science and Satire in the Age of Reason

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The Academy of Lagado Science and Satire in the Age of Reason
Science & Engineering Library
University of California, Santa Cruz

A Traveller Reports by Lee Jaffe

In 1708, stranded in a foreign port, an English surgeon waits for a ship to take him home. Making the most of the delay, he accepts an invitation to tour the nearby Academy of Lagado. He later publishes an account of this visit in Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World (1726) providing us with a rare firsthand account of an early scientific institute.

The visitor's descriptions of scientists at work, brief but vivid, give us an opportunity to observe the range and vitality of the field while still young. Chemistry and physics are still not far from alchemy; biology and medicine are the domains of the superstitious and sadistic; and even the Social Sciences and Humanities are considered ripe for scientific improvement. And yet the seeds of the modern Sciences are discernible.

For example, one of the most memorable accounts is of "Experiments upon a Dog" to cure cholic using "a large Pair of Bellows... conveyed eight Inches up the Anus" and either "drawing in the Wind" or reversing the action. "After the latter, the Animal was ready to burst, and made so violent a Discharge, as was very offensive to me and my Companions. The Dog died on the Spot, and we left the Doctor endeavouring to recover him by the same Operation."

The English visitor also describes: a project for "extracting Sun-Beams out of warm the Air in raw inclement Summers;" "an Operation to reduce human Excrement to its origina Food;" replacing silkworms with spiders ("because they understood weave as well as spin);" "softening Marble for Pillows and Pincushions;" and, a method to "prevent the Growth of Wool upon two young Lambs" in order to "propagate the Breed of naked Sheep."

The visitor goes on to describe projects conducted in the part of the Academy devoted to "speculative Learning" (or the Arts and Social Sciences). Memorable among these is the "Literary Engine," a device designed to produce random strings of words, so that "the most ignorant Person...may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study."

During this part of his tour, the visitor also observes projects intended to: eliminate spoken language, requiring "Men to carry about them, such Things as were necessary to express the particular Business they are to discourse on;" teach mathematics via propositions "written on a thin Wafer...the Student was to swallow upon a fasting Stomach;" remedy the "Diseases and Corruptions, to which the several kinds of publick Administration are subject" by dosing membersof the government with contemporary medicines; end violent civil strife by exchanging half of each leader's brain with that "of his opposite Party-man;" and so on...

The English surgeon is Lemuel Gulliver, the fictional traveller created by Jonathan Swift, the 18th century political and social satirist. Travels into Several Remote Nations... is better known as Gulliver's Travels. Lagado is featured, along with Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan, in the third voyage, a section especially noteworthy for its satire of the Sciences. Did Swift Get It Wrong?

It would be easy to suggest that Swift - a man of letters, after all - was out of his depth in creating the Academy of Lagado and dismiss his satire of Science as misinformed and reactionary. Such assessments miss an important point; Swift was both well-informed about the state of Science in his day and had something worth saying on the topic.

Consider Stephen Hales's Vegetable Staticks; or, an acount of some Statical Experiments on the Sap in Vegetables... (1726). A pioneer in plant physiology, Hales's reports probably provided Swift with the idea for "a Project for extracting Sun-Beams out of Cucumbers," as well as another episode. The same publication also includes the eerily familiar "Experiment CXIV" "I tied a middle sized Dog down alive on a table, and having layed bare his windpipe, I cut it asunder just below the Larynx, and fixed fast to it the end of a common fosset; the other end of the fosset had a large bladder tied to it...." Now, which one is the satire and which the real experiment? Given the record of scientific accomplishment up to that time, could Swift really be called a pessimist? Science had done little to improve life and some of its contributions were quite deadly. On one hand, medicine was useless against disease and doctors were as likely to shorten life as prolong it. On the other hand, gunpowder was the prime example of Science's accomplishments in Swift's time. Yet, Swift could write: "... whoever could make two Ears of Corn, or two blades of Grass to grow upon a Spot of Ground where only one grew be fore, would deserve better of Mankind, and do more essential Service to his Country than the whole Race of Politicians put together." --Book II: Chapter 7

In fact, Science is touched upon positively at many points in the Travels. As a young man, Gulliver uses his allowance to study Mathematics and eventually becomes a surgeon, studying "Physick" at the University of Leyden, a prestigious medical school. Gulliver shows a keen interest in the Sciences throughout his narrative. For instance, when asked what he would do if he was immortal, he imagines living to see "the Discovery of the Longitude, the perpetual Motion, the Universal Medicine, and many other great Inventions brought to the utmost Perfection." (III:10) And he eagerly reports the scientific discoveries and achievements he encounters. (Astronomers still marvel over Gulliver's report about the discovery of two moons of Mars by Laputan observers (III:2) 150 years before they were actually discovered in 1877.)

Gulliver's Travels is clearly a warning about putting too much faith in Science, whatever positive touches there are. Had Swift embraced the optimism of the Enlightenment, he might have focused more on what Science could become. Being Jonathan Swift, however, his compassion for a suffering world would not let him ignore its capability to lay waste to the world under the banner of "Progress" and he therefore could not countenance the unproven optimism of the newborn Sciences.

--Lee Jaffe, 27 March 1998

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