The Missing Day

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of 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 in II Kings 20:8-11. The story has been circulated in tracts, mimeographed pages and newspapers so often that even many of the people who circulate it don't know the original source. The person who concocted the story is Harold Hill, and it appears as Chapter 3 of his book How To Live Like A King's Kid under the title "How to Find the Missing Day".

According to Hill, the NASA scientists "were looking into the trajectories of known asteroids and meteors so we wouldn't send astronauts and satellites up only to have them bump into something. Satellite orbits have to be laid out in terms of where the heavenly bodies will be so that the whole thing won't become a head-on traffic collision." As they ran the calculations of the planets' positions back and forth over the centuries, "the computer stopped and put up a red flag. ... They called in the service department to check it out". When the technicians asked what the problem was, the operators replied "Well, the computer show's there's a day missing somewhere in elapsed time." After rechecking everything, the scientists "scratched their Educated Idiot Boxes."

Finally a religious member of the team suggested the answer might lie in the events recorded in the Book of Joshua. With some difficulty he persuaded the others to check out the possibility. When they did, they "found the explanation was close, but not close enough. The elapsed time in Joshua's day was only 23 hours and 20 minutes, not a whole day." Then the religious member recalled that in the Second Book of Kings, God makes the Sun go backwards ten degrees as a sign to King Hezekiah. "There was the whole twenty-four hours, the missing day that the space scientists had to make allowance for in the logbook."

Flaw 1: Accidental Collisions?

Whether or not the Biblical accounts are literally true or not is, surprisingly, irrelevant to this story. Even if the Biblical accounts are literally true, Hill's account is loaded with purely internal clues that brand it a fabrication. For openers, NASA would never need to calculate the positions of the 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 at all. As for meteors, they are too tiny to be tracked individually, and even meteor showers are not a serious hazard to space travel. The problem with space navigation is hitting anything at all, not worrying about hitting something accidentally. The Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft passed through the asteroid belts without coming anywhere near a large object. The planets are tiny targets in a big space, and there is no danger whatever of a "head-on traffic collision".

Flaw 2: Dealing with Computer Problems

Secondly, anyone with a home computer should spot the second flaw immediately. When a computer gives unexpected results, the problem almost certainly lies in the software or the data. When the fault lies in the computer itself the computer either puts out gibberish or stops completely; in computer parlance, the computer "crashes". Nobody with any knowledge of computers would call in a service company merely because a computer was giving out unexpected answers.

Flaw 3: The Planets in Ancient Times

Finally, and most important, there is no way a computer could, all by itself, have calculated the presence of a missing day. 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 the assumption that the laws of physics have been unchanged.

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

To sum up, Hill is wrong about why NASA calculates the positions of the planets, about what they would have done in the event an unexpected result turned up, and wrong about the ability of a computer to calculate the existence of a missing day. These errors are all the more mind-boggling because Hill claims to have been a consultant to NASA! Hill admits he did not actually witness the incident, but he stands by its authenticity. He should have had enough competence to spot the story as a fake or at least tell it without so many glaring mistakes. Hill is actually an electrical engineer. Being in a NASA facility no more makes a person a space scientist than being in a garage makes one a 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 It All Begin?. The subtitle of the book, From Goo to You by Way of the Zoo, pretty well sums up its intellectual value. The book is sprinkled with "Edsel Egghead McMurphy" sayings that heap scorn on scientists and nonbelievers, and even by anti-evolutionist standards is pretty devoid of content. The book does have one interesting feature: an appendix with a listing of scientific discoveries that were supposedly predicted by the Bible. One, from Job 38:22-23, reads, "Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? Or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail which I have reserved against the day of battle and war?" I have sometimes suspected the verse refers to Midwest winters, but Hill has a different interpretation. To Hill, this verse predicts "High explosives can be safely shipped in shaved ice."

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Created 3 February 1998, Last Update 3 February 1998

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