Gulliver Amongst the Yahoos

Gulliver's Travels illustration by James Gilray, using George III as the King of Brobdingnag
and a General Napoleon in the role of "Gulliver"

Gulliver's Travels is a prose satire and the best known writing of Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift. It is a book I never read all the way through and I suspect I am not the only reader in that position. It's not that the book is terrible, but it is tough reading, in a vocabulary unlike ours today and in a style also unlike today.

Even its full title is ponderous: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. Published in 1726, a long title of explanation was not unusual - not unlike today's titles for non-fiction books and academic papers which almost always have a good title, a colon, and an explanation.

Swift's book is one of those classics that is well known but unread. It is a satire on human nature, politics and the genre of travelers' tales that were popular at the time.

Swift claimed that he wrote the book "To vex the world rather than divert it."

November 30 is Swift's birthday. I imagine that if he were here to celebrate, he would be disappointed that his book is not popular reading, but pleased that it is a "classic" that is still in print. I think he would be amused by the many adaptations for the screen that have been made. And I think he would find much of our current society the stuff of satire.

Gulliver travels on four voyages. He finds exotic places and meets strange creatures. The scenes most people recall are his meeting with the race of miniature people in Lilliput and, on another voyage, a race of giants in Brobdingnab. The latter place is located on the western coast of the North America.


One of his interesting visits is when he is rescued by the people of the flying island of Laputa. It seems quite sophisticated as it is a kingdom devoted to the arts of music, mathematics and astronomy. Unfortunately, they seem unable to use their knowledge for any practical purposes.

Laputa rules the land below by bombing them with rocks when necessary. At the "Royal Society" kind of Grand Academy of Lagado, they research idiotic things quite seriously: extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, softening marble to use in pillows and mixing paint by smell.

One piece of research done there that might actually be useful in our current political climate of conspiracies is examining the excrement of suspicious persons. This "muckraking" could possibly be a useful tool for today's investigative journalists.

The only version of Gulliver I read cover-to-cover

The most disgusting race of beings he encounters are called Yahoos. Gulliver eventually realizes that they are actually the humans like himself.

Here is the Gulliver's Travels in an American animated feature film version made in 1939 by Fleischer Studios. It is based very loosely on only the Lilliput and Blefuscu lands Gulliver finds in his first voyage.

Paramount Pictures wanted a feature-length animated film as a response to Disney's groundbreaking first cel-animation film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was a big hit. Gulliver's Travels was the second animated feature film produced by an American studio.

My, What Big Pupils You Have

The pupil is a hole located in the center of the iris that allows light to strike the retina. It appears black because light rays entering the pupil are absorbed. (The iris is the colored part.) You know that its size varies due to the amount of light, your emotional state, cognitive effort, drugs and, well, death.

A dark room means it dilates to allow more light. The same is true for an orgasm, a difficult test question and when you're lying. "Lying Eyes" isn't just an Eagles song, because pupil dilation is considered a reliable indicator of lying. Enlarged pupils are a sign that your brain is working hard, and that happens when you lie.

The study of all this, pupillometry, is often used in psychological research.

So, saying someone has big pupils probably isn't a compliment. Or is it? Scientists have known for more than 50 years that the size of the pupil is related to more than just the amount of light entering the eyes.

A standard experiment in memory shows that the pupil dilates each time a new item is held in memory (more difficult),  and constricts as each item is subsequently recalled (easier).

A recent study found that:
Pupil dilations of the eye are known to correspond to central cognitive processes. However, the relationship between pupil size and individual differences in cognitive ability is not as well studied. A peculiar finding that has cropped up in this research is that those high on cognitive ability have a larger pupil size, even during a passive baseline condition. 

It seems that there is relationship between pupil size and cognitive ability across individuals. The researchers looked at the correlation between baseline (resting) pupil diameter and fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence is thought to be a major component of IQ.

Yes, the paper also admits that "these findings were incidental and lacked a clear explanation" but maybe this means that saying you have big pupils is really a compliment.

I have also read that pupil size diminishes with age. What's with that?

How Chameleons Change Colors

A lot of learning is relearning and unlearning. Research always seems to overturn things we learned. Coffee, red wine, eggs, low-fat - good for you or bad for your health? Depends on the when and who of the research.

But we can learn something new every day and that's good for the brain. This One-Page Schoolhouse is full of quick lessons and, like a one-room schoolhouse, we cover all subjects.

Today we can look at new research that suggests that the way chameleons change color is very different from what scientists had assumed.

Check out this video by filmmaker and National Geographic Grantee Jason Jaacks that tells you about how color change is controlled by nanocrystals in a top layer of the lizards' skin.