This article is a bonanza for those of us who study the eighteenth century: the Royal Society, which turns 350 next year, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

“Take nobody’s word for it.”

As rendered in Latin, “nullius in verba,” it is the motto of the Royal Society, Britain’s 350-year-old science fraternity. Back in 1660, 12 learned gents formed what they called a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning. Today their Philosophical Transactions, which invented the concept of peer review, is the oldest scientific journal in continuous publication in the world.

That bit of Latin borrowed from Horace, however, is a coy reminder of the long-shared coin of science inquiry and science skepticism.

It’s fascinating to think that “physico-mathematicall experimentall learning,” or scientific inquiry, was ever a new mode of thinking, opposed to metaphysics or theology or philosophy. Measuring things, not thinking about them in the abstract. The paradigm has been pretty decisively shifted, no? Now we just call it “science” and that kind of thinking has no opposition: it’s the philosophers and literary critics who are on the defensive, trying to carve out spaces for themselves in this brutally empirical world we live in.

It’s a pleasure to note that early scientists knew Horace well enough to choose their motto out of his works. Would scientists today be so clever? Certainly moreso when it comes to puzzling out second causes, like quantum mechanics or chaos theory or the like, but probably not so much at digging up obscure but apt Latin tags.

And nobody’s as clever as Swift:

Here is an experiment of our own. In the following pairs of excerpts, which sample, A or B, is from a Royal Society letter, explaining earnest scientific endeavor, and which is the work of a deeply skeptical satirist in the guise of Lemuel Gulliver?

Sample 1A. This scientist “had been eight years upon a project for extracting sun-beams out of cucumbers, which were to be put into vials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers. He told me he did not doubt in eight years more he should be able to supply the Governor’s gardens with sunshine at a reasonable rate.”

Sample 1B. This scientist fashioned a kite out of silk, cedar and twine, affixed a bit of wire to it, then waited for a “thunder-gust.” The person “who holds the string, must stand within a door, or window, or under some cover, so that the silk riband may not be wet; and care must be taken, that the twine does not touch the frame of the door or window. As soon as any of the thunder-clouds come over the kite, the pointed wire will draw the electric fire from them; and the kite, with all the twine, will be electrified.”

Sample 2A. This scientist “gave me a close embrace (a compliment I could well have excused). His employment from his first coming into the Academy, was an operation to reduce human excrement to its original food, by separating the several parts, removing the tincture which it receives from the gall, making the odour exhale, and scumming off the saliva. He had a weekly allowance from the society, of a vessel filled with human ordure.”

Sample 2B. This scientist sought to answer questions about what happened when he transfused the blood of one animal into another. He wondered “whether a fierce Dog, by being often quite new stocked with the blood of a cowardly Dog, may not become more tame” and “whether a Dog, taught to fetch and carry, or to dive after Ducks, or to sett, will after frequent and full recruits of the blood of Dogs unfit for those Exercises, be as good at them, as before?”

Sample 3A. “There was a man born blind, who had several apprentices in his own condition: their employment was to mix colours for painters, which their master taught them to distinguish by feeling and smelling. It was indeed my misfortune to find them at that time not very perfect in their lessons.”

Sample 3B. From a surgeon who restored the sight of a boy who was born blind or had no memory of ever having seen, examining how shapes and colors and distances are perceived: “Being shewn his Father’s Picture in a Locket at his Mother’s Watch, and told what it was, he acknowledged a Likeness, but was vastly surpriz’d; asking, how it could be, that a large Face could be express’d in so little Room, saying, It should have seem’d as impossible to him, as to put a Bushel of any thing into a Pint.”

All the Bs are actual experiments; all the As are Swift’s inventions. These are admittedly not the greatest examples of Swift’s cleverness. For that, you’ll have to read A Tale of a Tub (1710).

So what are you waiting for?

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