Is it possible that a famous author had secret access to ancient information surrounding the planet Mars? The story I'm sharing with you today revolves around none other than Jonathan Swift, the brains behind the classic novel Gulliver’s Travels. The book was first published in 1726, almost three hundred years ago. Before we get to the matter of Swift’s strange connection to Mars, though, let’s first take a look at the story-line of his famous novel. The planned, original title of Gulliver’s Travels was Travel into Several Remote Nations of the World in Four Parts…by Lemuel Gulliver. It’s hardly surprising that with a title like that the publisher chose to trim it down a bit! As for the story itself, it tells of the adventures of the aforementioned Lemuel Gulliver. We learn that he has a long affinity for the vast oceans of our world, that he is a skilled surgeon, and that he has traveled the planet, overseeing the crews of several ships. Swift’s story sees our hero head out to a series of tongue-twisting places, including Luggnagg, Laputa, and Brobdingnag, where adventures abound.
Mars' moon, Phobos (NASA)
Although Swift’s acclaimed novel was first published in 1726, the man himself had been working on the story as far back as 1713. It wasn’t for a full seven years later that Swift finally decided to seriously get into the writing of what was, until then, a largely stalled manuscript. Swift certainly made up for lost time, however, toiling night and day to get the book whipped into good shape. He certainly did that. On reading Swift’s work, Benjamin Motte, a London publisher, eagerly decided to publish it. It was a most wise move: Gulliver’s Travels became a distinct bestseller. It’s still a crowd-puller to this day: in 2010 a big-bucks movie version, starring Jack Black, reaped in more than $200 million in the process. Now, we come to the matter – and the mystery – of Swift’s connection to Mars.
In Gulliver’s Travels, we learn that the people of Laputa – an island that Gulliver visits during the course of his worldwide trek – have "...discovered two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve about Mars, whereof the innermost is distant from the center of the primary planet exactly three of its diameters, and the outermost five; the former revolves in the space of ten hours, and the latter in twenty-one and a half; so that the squares of their periodical times are very near the same proportion with the cubes of their distance from the center of Mars, which evidently shows them to be governed by the same law of gravitation that influences the other heavenly bodies."
We might say that there is nothing particularly strange about all of this: after all, Mars does indeed have a pair of small satellites. Their names are Deimos and Phobos. So, why there is such a controversy surrounding Swift’s words? The answer is a fascinating and tantalizing one: Mars’ two moons were not discovered until 1877 – which was approximately a century and a half after Swift’s book was published. This begs an important and glaringly obvious question: how could Swift have known of the existence of the Martian moons long before anyone else? Certainly, in the 1700s there were no telescopes around at the time that could secure a viewing of the two moons. Not only that, Swift’s descriptions of Deimos and Phobos were not too dissimilar to the reality of the situation.
Deimos: Mars' Other Moon (NASA)
On this issue, astronomer David Darling says:"When the two Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos, were eventually found, by Asaph Hall at the US Naval Observatory, their orbits proved to be quite similar to those described in Swift’s novel. Phobos is actually 6,000 km from the surface of Mars and revolves around Mars in 7.7 hours, whereas Swift gave the values 13,600 km and 10 hours, respectively. Deimos averages 20,100 kilometers from Mars and orbits in 30.3 hours; Swift gives 27,200 kilometers and 21.5 hours, respectively." Adding even more intrigue to the story: Swift was not the only writer, in the 1700s, to address the matter of Mars’ two moons. They pop up in the pages of an early sci-fi story, Micromegas. It was written in 1750 by Voltaire, an acclaimed French philosopher and historian. Of course, the fact that Voiltaire’s story came after Swift’s makes it very likely that Voltaire simply decided to take a degree of inspiration from the pages of Gulliver’s Travels.
There is another possibility, too. A controversial - and now rightly dismissed - theory was postulated by a German astrologer and astronomer, Johannes Kepler, who was born in 1571 and who died in 1630. Kepler’s theory was that the numbers of moons that orbited the planets in our solar system adhered to a certain concept. Kepler, as a revered astronomer, concluded that neither Venus nor Mercury had moons. He was correct. Obviously, he knew that our planet has just one moon. And, in the world of Kepler, that meant Mars would likely have two moons. And Jupiter would have three, and Saturn four. And so on and so on. Today, we know that this idea has no merit to it at all. Was Kepler’s concept the cause of all the controversy surrounding the Martian moons? Was the whole matter a bizarre coincidence? Or, did Jonathan Swift have access to ancient secrets pertaining to a now-long-forgotten Martian race? They are questions that offer us a great deal of food for thought. So far, however, the questions remain unanswered.