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From the Files of the River Journal's Surrealist Research Bureau

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“Swords of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs, cover art by J Allen St. John, used with permission from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. “Swords of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs, cover art by J Allen St. John, used with permission from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.

The Moons of Mars

Some of my favorite tales as a young man were the “Tarzan” books of the prolific 1930s California author Edgar Rice Burroughs, who also later wrote a series of adventures “Under the Moons of Mars” which featured the exploits of John Carter. By day on earth he was a wheelchair-bound paraplegic but at night, in dreams, he roamed the cosmos and battled great monsters.

These “Under the Martian Moons” series, like those of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Sherlock Holmes, helped fire my young imagination and the road led eventually into more scientifically and satirically based literature like that of Jonathan Swift, whose “Gulliver’s Travels” had a curious footnote in it I still recall.

To recap Gulliver; Swift has his hero discuss in the section “Voyage to Laputa” astronomical discoveries by the Laputians; “They [the Laputan astronomers] have likewise discovered two lesser stars, or ‘satellites,’ which revolve about Mars, whereof the innermost is distant from the centre 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 a half;...” Swift goes on to relate another few paragraphs of obscure scientific data concerning the Martian Moons but the thing to remember is that it would not be for another 150 years after Swift wrote that the moons would actually be discovered, in 1877 by the astronomer Asaph Hall. It’s said that Hall, after their discovery and while still pondering on a name for the moons, had pointed out to him the passage in Swift’s 1726 tale and he was seized with ‘fear and terror’; thus giving birth to the names Phobos and Deimos (Greek for fear and terror, respectively).

That curious footnote in Gulliver left me mystified. How could someone describe these undiscovered moons so accurately, including even their apparent sizes and periods of rotation more than 150 years before their official discovery? Forty years later, I still have no answer. Those few scientists who’ve bothered to look at the matter at all seem to be all reduced to saying something along the lines of “a lucky guess.”

Swift was surely no prophet. An Irish Bishop, apparently unaware of Swift’s satirical intentions, once wrote that it was so full of improbabilities that he hardly believed a word in the book. Though a scientist, Swift was primarily a satirist. Many people took seriously his Simple Solution, that the English should cook and eat the Irish poor as an answer to the Great Potato Famine. His self-written 1745 epitaph reads; “Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift, where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart.” He left his entire estate to the founding of “an hospital for the care of lunatics and idiots.”

One of the joys of researching obscure tidbits like these is the way small, tiny factoids sometime piece together like a puzzle. The Great Chinese Fleet of 1423 which entered the Mediterranean and visited the Vatican left behind them not only a globe of the earth (dated from 1419 B.C.E.) which revealed both the American continents, but left also an entire Chinese 5,000-volume encyclopedia of knowledge, including advanced astronomical data and the means of determining longitude, which more than likely set fire to the European Age of Exploration.

We’ve only just scratched the surface of our debt to China but I shouldn’t wonder if one of these Chinese astronomical treatises might not have made its way to Dublin and Swift. As I find out more I’ll relate it soon in a future TRJ.

‘til next time; Yours for a Strong America!

Editor’s Note - In 1752 Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) also wrote about the ‘two moons of Mars’ in Micromegas. In honor of both Swift and Voltaire’s seeming prescience, two craters on Deimos are named after the pair.

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Jody Forest Jody Forest When he's not hidden behind the palatial gates of his Dover estate, Casa de Bozo, Jody is out using outdated and corny pickup lines on various gullible women.

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