The Missing Day

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The Story

A story which has been repeated over and over for years in fundamentalist circles involves some NASA scientists who supposedly uncover evidence for the earth standing still (Joshua 10:12-14) or reversing as described inII Kings 20:8-11. The story has been circulated in tracts,mimeographed pages and newspapers so often that even many of thepeople who circulate it don't know the original source. Theperson who concocted the story is Harold Hill, and it appears asChapter 3 of his book How To Live Like A King's Kid under thetitle "How to Find the Missing Day".

According to Hill, the NASA scientists "were looking intothe trajectories of known asteroids and meteors so we wouldn't send astronauts and satellites up only to have them bump intosomething. Satellite orbits have to be laid out in terms of wherethe heavenly bodies will be so that the whole thing won't becomea head-on traffic collision." As they ran the calculations of theplanets' positions back and forth over the centuries, "thecomputer stopped and put up a red flag. ... They called in theservice department to check it out". When the technicians askedwhat the problem was, the operators replied "Well, the computershow's there's a day missing somewhere in elapsed time." Afterrechecking everything, the scientists "scratched their EducatedIdiot Boxes."

Finally a religious member of the team suggested the answermight lie in the events recorded in the Book of Joshua. With somedifficulty he persuaded the others to check out the possibility.When they did, they "found the explanation was close, but notclose enough. The elapsed time in Joshua's day was only 23 hoursand 20 minutes, not a whole day." Then the religious memberrecalled that in the Second Book of Kings, God makes the Sun gobackwards ten degrees as a sign to King Hezekiah. "There was thewhole twenty-four hours, the missing day that the spacescientists had to make allowance for in the logbook."

Flaw 1: Accidental Collisions?

Whether or not the Biblical accounts are literally true ornot is, surprisingly, irrelevant to this story. Even if the Biblical accounts are literally true, Hill's account isloaded with purely internal clues that brand it a fabrication.For openers, NASA would never need to calculate the positions ofthe heavenly bodies to keep astronauts and satellites from"bumping into something". There are only a few tiny asteroids that can even come within a million kilometers of the Earth atall. As for meteors, they are too tiny to be trackedindividually, and even meteor showers are not a serious hazard tospace travel. The problem with space navigation is hittinganything at all, not worrying about hitting somethingaccidentally. The Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft passed throughthe asteroid belts without coming anywhere near a large object.The planets are tiny targets in a big space, and there is nodanger whatever of a "head-on traffic collision".

Flaw 2: Dealing with Computer Problems

Secondly, anyone with a home computer should spotthe second flaw immediately. When a computer givesunexpected results, the problem almost certainly lies in thesoftware or the data. When the fault lies in the computer itselfthe computer either puts out gibberish or stops completely; incomputer parlance, the computer "crashes". Nobody with anyknowledge of computers would call in a service company merelybecause a computer was giving out unexpected answers.

Flaw 3: The Planets in Ancient Times

Finally, and most important, there is no way a computercould, all by itself, have calculated the presence of a missingday. Planets don't leave footprints. The only way we can know where the planets were at some time in the past is to calculate their positions on theassumption that the laws of physics have been unchanged.

What about ancient documents? Could astronomical events inancient documents be used to show the presence of a missing day?In principle, yes, if the calendar systems of ancient times couldbe related directly to our own to the very day and ifobservations before a certain date were systematically one dayoff. The problem is that most ancient calendars cannot be exactlyrelated to our own; most frequently the best way of relating ourcalendar to some ancient system is to use astronomical events ascalibration, but we can only make such a calibration by assumingthe planets have never been disturbed. (The burden of proof,incidentally, because the planets are known to follow regularlaws, lies on those who claim the laws can be broken, that is, onthose who assert that the orbits of the planets have changed.)There is no completely independent way to know where the planetswere at the time Joshua fought at Gibeon, and even the year ofthe battle is open to conjecture.

To sum up, Hill is wrong about why NASA calculates thepositions of the planets, about what they would have done in theevent an unexpected result turned up, and wrong about the abilityof a computer to calculate the existence of a missing day. Theseerrors are all the more mind-boggling because Hill claims to havebeen a consultant to NASA! Hill admits he did not actuallywitness the incident, but he stands by its authenticity. Heshould have had enough competence to spot the story as a fake orat least tell it without so many glaring mistakes. Hill isactually an electrical engineer. Being in a NASA facility no moremakes a person a space scientist than being in a garage makes onea car. It turns out that Hill's connection to NASA was slender indeed. His company had a contract to service some electrical generators at Cape Canaveral. He was never in any way connected with mission operations or planning. It was, by the way, some intellectually responsible conservative Christians who first investigated the truth behind Hill's NASA connections.

Hill has also written a book on evolution called How Did ItAll Begin?. The subtitle of the book, From Goo to You by Way ofthe Zoo, pretty well sums up its intellectual value. The book issprinkled with "Edsel Egghead McMurphy" sayings that heap scornon scientists and nonbelievers, and even by anti-evolutionist standardsis pretty devoid of content. The book does have one interesting feature: anappendix with a listing of scientific discoveries that weresupposedly predicted by the Bible. One, from Job 38:22-23, reads,"Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? Or hast thouseen the treasures of the hail which I have reserved against theday of battle and war?" I have sometimes suspected the verserefers to Midwest winters, but Hill has a differentinterpretation. To Hill, this verse predicts "High explosives canbe safely shipped in shaved ice."

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Created 3 February 1998, Last Update 3 February 1998

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