The Madness of Time Travel

Time travel is a staple in science fiction stories. Marty McFly traveled into the future and back into the past by means of a flux capacitor designed by the eminent Dr. Emmett Brown. Until he surrendered it to Thanos, Dr. Strange used the power of the time stone to control time. And Dr. Who cavorts merrily through time and space in his TARDIS with the simple flip of a lever. It all seems so easy. Humans have invented all manner of dazzling wonders, from pottery to ships to steel to microchips to orbiting telescopes. Surely it is just a matter of time before some genius working in a garage builds a variant of Dr. Brown’s flux capacitor and is thereby able to zap himself into the future, whether with the flip of a lever or by racing through a mall parking lot at 88 miles per hour.

But is time travel actually possible? Well, certainly it is. With no energy expenditure at all everything and everyone in the universe moves inexorably forward into the future. And it is certainly possible to move into the future at a faster rate than other observers. Special relativity says that two observers moving relative to one another experience the flow of time at different rates, and that difference depends on their relative velocity. This prediction of relativity has been confirmed in experiment many times. For relative velocities that are a small fraction of the speed of light, the difference is quite small. But even so, the Global Positioning Satellite System is so time dependent and so accurate that it had to be designed to account for this and other relativistic phenomena.

Just how extreme can the difference between the clocks of two observers get? Well, the most extreme case concerns one observer at rest and another moving at the speed of light (in their mutual reference frame). In this case the moving observer’s clock actually stops while the clock of the at rest observer continues at its usual pace. If the moving observer travels at the speed of light for a million years, then returns to the physical position of the at rest observer, the at rest observer would be long since dead though the traveling observer would not have aged a single second.

Okay, so travel into the future is certainly possible. What about travel into the past? For an answer to this question we must turn to an astounding result due to Kurt Godel. In 1949 he constructed a solution to the field equations of Einstein’s General Theory of General Relativity that allows an observer to travel to any point in space and time– present, future, or past! This particular solution of Einstein’s theory is a fascinating and instructive study in its own right, but it is decidedly not a solution that corresponds to our own universe. The universe of the Godel solution has an intrinsic rotation about an axis. Our universe has no such rotation. The following video demonstrates how the closed time-like paths of Godel’s solution would enable one to travel into one’s own past:

Let us assume for the moment that such minor difficulties can be overcome in the grand cathedral of future human knowledge. Time travel still presents many practical difficulties that must be considered. Imagine that you are sitting in the driver’s seat of Dr. Brown’s DeLorean, and that you set the time control device for six months in the future. Now you stomp on the accelerator, get the car up to 88 miles per hour, and fzap! You reappear six months in the future, in precisely the same physical location where you disappeared.

But the Earth moves. The Earth is currently revolving around the Sun. In six months the Earth will be on the other side of the Sun. So the DeLorean cannot simply move in a straight line through time and space to reach the point where the future Earth will be in six months. It must move along an arc that exactly follows the path that the Earth will take.

And more than that, the Sun itself is moving. The entire solar system is revolving around the center of our galaxy at the rate of one complete revolution about every 225 million years. So six months in the future, the solar system would have moved a considerable distance around the galactic center from its present location. Dr. Brown had better make corrections for that, or the DeLorean will reappear in interstellar space.

There are other motions to consider as well. The Earth rotates on its axis, and the axis itself has a precession– that is, a wobble. Earth’s axis makes one complete revolution about every 26,000 years. So the position from which the DeLorean departed will have moved, irrespective of the other motions we have discussed.

There are other influences as well. Johannes Kepler showed that the paths of the planets are ellipses, not circles. But that is only to a first approximation. The moon and the other planets exert gravitational forces on the Earth. Those forces distort Earth’s orbit from that of a perfect ellipse. So to ensure that the DeLorean returns to the exact point from which it departed, every detail of Earth’s orbit will have to be considered– including all of the influences due to other gravitational objects in the solar system.

And there are more mundane considerations as well. What if someone builds a cement wall just a few feet beyond the point from which the DeLorean disappeared. When it reappears, the DeLorean will travel just a few feet before smashing into a cement wall. Not good. 😦

An earthquake might thrust up a chunk of the Earth’s crust right into the DeLorean’s path on return. A river might change course, causing the DeLorean to plunge into a torrent of water. Someone could park a car right in the DeLorean’s future path. Ouch.

Time travel as a literary device is pretty ridiculous. If its purpose is to get the reader to think about the possible future course of events, it may have some value. But I have never encountered any science fiction story that makes a full accounting of all of the many considerations we have discussed. There is in fact little or no “science” involved in the way time travel is generally portrayed. And therefore time travel will have to remain fully in the province of fantasy, rather than science fiction. Wave a wand, utter magical incantations, discover an ancient artifact that will open a doorway to a time portal. But please don’t pretend that time travel has any basis in science. It’s just not possible.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved

Plot, Milieu, Poetry, and Character

Fiction writing spans a vast range of styles and structures. Some fiction concentrates on the plot. Just tell the story. Don’t distract me with useless details about scudding clouds, or a woman’s updo, or the sonorous music playing in an elevator. Just tell me what happened. That’s all I want to know.

Certainly there is an audience for such writing. The purpose of such a narrative style is to relate a sequence of events– that is, action. BANG– the story opens with a heist. WHAM– one of the robbers shoots and kills a guard. POW– police arrive at the scene and get in a gunfight with the thieves, who manage to escape by… Why should we care about the color of a thief’s hair, or his thoughts about cosmology unless it somehow leads to his arrest?

But we should ask– is a plot absolutely essential to the telling of a story? Must a story be a rapid fire sequence of BANG / WHAM / POW? Or is it possible to write a novel in which plot is subordinate to something else?

An important counterexample would be James Joyce’s Ulysses. The plot of the book is supremely ordinary. It focuses on the events in the day of a life of one man (Leopold Bloom), a resident of Dublin, on June 16, 1904. And why should we care about the life of this one man on one inconsequential day? Well, there are certainly lots of readers who have no interest whatsoever in Mr. Leopold Bloom, or in his reading material (“Sweets Of Sin”), or his dietary habits. (He ate the inner organs of beasts and small fowls. With relish. Or was it enthusiasm?) We learn everything about Leopold Bloom– where he lives, what foods he likes, what he understands about metempsychosis, what he thinks about the Irish politician Charles Stuart Parnell. No detail is too small, no thought too fleeting.

Ulysses is as much about heroic literature as it is about the life of one rather ordinary man on an ordinary day. As Leopold Bloom travels through the city of 20th century Dublin, his experiences mimic those of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. It’s as if Homer’s narrative is a shadow following in the background throughout Mr. Bloom’s mundane day. This is not so much a plot element as it is an aspect of the story’s milieu. This is the author stretching the boundaries of storytelling and using the narrative itself to tell a story about storytelling. If you read Ulysses with that understanding I think you have to agree that Joyce achieved his objective, and that he did so in a very imaginative way. But if you’re looking for a story that could serve as the basis for the next Die Hard movie– forget it.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov takes the elements of fiction in a different direction– that of poetry. The book has two halves. The first half is an extended poem, itself titled “Pale Fire.” The second half consists of commentary on the poem by someone who, we eventually realize, is a murderer. The plot is subtle and subdued. The victim’s corpse isn’t hauled off to the morgue for a coroner’s investigation. Detectives don’t examine the crime scene searching for clues. The clues are to be found in the commentator’s writings, and then only by inference.

This is a book, more than most, that centers on character. The poem– written by a man named John Shade– is about the struggles of the author to understand and sort through his own sense of failure, his notions of art, his mortality. That is, John Shade is a man of moral character. The commentator is a man of shallow character. Yes, there is a plot. But the elements of poetry and character are in the foreground, and the plot is in the background. I regard Pale Fire as a wonderfully imaginative piece of fiction writing, though there’s little chance Marvel Studios will pick it up for a new installment of the adventures of Dr. Strange.

Picture a four dimensional space, the axes being Plot, Milieu, Poetry, and Character. Any novel can be positioned somewhere in this space. Is there an ideal location in this space that is most true to the notion of what a novel is? No. I would argue that a novel could be successful regardless of its location in this space. The task of the author is to make the choices of plot, milieu, poetry, and character work for the intended audience. And we should acknowledge that not all audiences will appreciate these elements of narrative in equal measure. Some are more drawn to plot, others to character. There is no true and correct answer to the question of how best to write a novel.

I therefore caution against the idea that by following certain rules an author can learn the method that is most likely to result in a successful novel. Ulysses and Pale Fire both succeeded, in my view, because they broke all the rules. Rules are for drudges. Imagination is for artists.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved.

Writing as a tool

Writing is certainly one of the greatest tools humans have ever invented. Prior to the invention of writing, knowledge could only be passed from one generation to the next via word of mouth. Once writing became a part of everyday life, knowledge could be preserved across time.

There is an ongoing debate between the Egyptologists and the scholars of ancient Mesopotamia as to where and when the first writing system was devised. But the evidence shows that by no later than 2600 BCE the Sumerian writing system was capable of expressing the full range of the Sumerian language, including such nuances as meter and alliteration.

The Sumerians made writing a foundational part of their culture. Transactions such as the purchase of real estate, marriage, and divorce were recorded on cuneiform tablets. These tablets could actually be used by citizens in the Sumerian equivalent of a court of law. One tablet of a type known as a “ditilla” from ancient Sumer records a trial involving a woman whose uncle assumed ownership of her house and kicked her out. She took her case to a local magistrate, and a scribe recorded the proceedings. The woman and her uncle both appeared before the magistrate. Both were required to swear before a statue of the village god that they would tell the truth. Then both sides were allowed to present their cases. The woman presented a cuneiform tablet that recorded her purchase of the house, and it also recorded that the transaction was witnessed by two of her friends. The two friends accompanied her and testified that indeed they witnessed the sale. If the uncle had a defense, it isn’t recorded on the ditilla. So the magistrate awarded the house to the woman, and the uncle was forced to move out. This vignette played out hundreds of years before Hammurabi built the first Babylonian empire in the 18th century BCE.

None of that would have been possible without a writing system. The simple act of recording a real estate transaction– one that we now take for granted every day– transformed society by making it possible for ordinary people to seek and obtain a form of justice in a society that didn’t have lawyers, or laws, or a police force.

Writing enabled people of the ancient world to record their thoughts, their beliefs, and their achievements. The world of ancient Egypt would look far more mysterious to us if we didn’t have the pyramid texts and the coffin texts to tell us what the ancient Egyptians believed about life after death.

Today we have the marvelous treasures of ancient writings to help us understand how ancient people lived and thought. A man named Sin-leqi-unninni wrote an epic poem known as the Epic of Gilgamesh in Akkadian, in roughly 1200 BCE while he lived in Babylon. That epic includes a story of a great flood that would have wiped out all life on Earth had it not been for the defiance of a god, Ea, who warned a man named Ut-napishtim and advised him to build a boat. But long before the time of Sin-leqi-unninni, the story of the Flood was told in at least two previous versions, in Sumerian. This history shows that the story of the Flood in the Bible has antecedents in Mesopotamia that go back to a time probably 2000 years prior to that of the very earliest writings of the Bible.

Mathematics has also proven to be a powerful tool. We can frame the laws of physics as mathematical equations and then use those equations to deduce properties and behaviors of the world around us. For example, Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation was used to deduce the location of the planet Neptune from an observed wobble in the orbit of the planet Uranus.

I would argue that mathematics is a type of language. It has a grammar and a syntax. An equation such as the following is one that follows the rules of the language of mathematics:

5X + Y = 0

whereas the following equation makes no sense:

= 5X / 2 – $

Mathematical equations can all be translated into natural language. The following equation:

5X + Y = 0

can be expressed in natural language as follows:

five times (the value of the variable X) plus (the value of the variable Y) equals zero

So is mathematics a language? Well, it clearly has linguistic elements. As I said above, it has both grammar and syntax. But though its symbols may bear a superficial resemblance to the letters of an alphabet, they don’t combine the way that letters combine into words. The rules for the use of mathematical symbols are much more strict than for the use of the letters of an alphabet, or for the words of a sentence.

And furthermore an equation can be transformed by the rules of mathematics to arrive at deductions. Here’s an example:

5X + 7 = 0

5X = -7

X = -(7/5)

The method for arriving at the above result can be described in natural language, as can be the underlying assumptions of the types of mathematical objects employed (i.e. the elements of a mathematical field). But the natural language formulation of such equations obscures the solution, whereas the mathematical form makes it easier to follow.

Yes, mathematics is a type of language– but it’s one with rules that are far more structured and strict than those of any natural language. So for that reason I think it’s best to think of mathematics as a symbolic system based purely on logic in which every component has a valid natural language transliteration.

Is language the greatest innovation in history? I don’t think that’s a question that requires an answer. The innovations of using fire for light, for defense against predators, and for cooking were certainly immensely transformational. As discussed above, mathematics has been immensely transformational. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the space program would not have been possible without the innovation of mathematics.

But regardless of whether it’s the greatest innovation ever, writing is without question indispensable to modern society. Without writing we would have little insight into the past, and the task of passing on what we have learned to future generations would be vastly more difficult.

Copyright (c) David S. Moore, 2022

All rights reserved

The Science Fiction Genre

Is the genre of science fiction simply a form of titillating entertainment, unworthy of serious consideration? Or does it convey something of lasting value that can engage our interest and give us insight into ourselves and the world around us?

Before attempting to answer this question we should ask whether there is any such thing as a story of any kind that is of lasting value and which gives us insight into ourselves and the world around us. I would say that the answer to that question is unequivocally ‘Yes.’ As positive examples I would offer Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies: Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Othello. Though these plays are more than four centuries old, they still captivate audiences today with their realistic portrayals of lives destroyed by greed, faithlessness, carelessness, and deceit.

And yet several of Shakespeare’s plays have anachronistic elements which do not align with present day understandings. The spirit of Hamlet’s father is one such example. Many of Shakespeare’s central characters represent a bygone era of kingship. Macbeth, Lear, and Hamlet are all royalty.

Shakespeare’s is a very different sort of tragedy than that of the ancient Greeks. In Sophocles’s King Oedipus, the protagonist (Oedipus) kills his own father and has sex with his own mother, exactly as an oracle had foretold. Characters in Greek dramas often went through their lives suffering at the whims of gods and goddesses who predetermined their fates. Shakespeare’s tragic characters are the victims of human designs rather than of preordained fate, and for that reason are far more believable than Greek tragic figures.

Science fiction writing has multiple purposes, often operating in conflict. One such purpose is to dazzle the audience with visions of wondrous technologies that have vanquished all social ills; another is to terrify the audience with visions of a technology run amok. Whether the goal is to instill wonder or fear, the result is often the sublimation of character and human motivation to a narrative that is focused on technology. When technology itself is either the protagonist or the antagonist, the result is certain to be a loss of human character, and consequently a loss of emotional impact.

On the other hand, any setting– however fantastic or imaginary– can serve as the backdrop for a compelling human drama, so long as the characters so positioned have realistic human emotions and reactions. But realistic characters must also be subject to credible risks. A race of immortal beings who meditate in a state of eternal bliss are subject to no risks and are therefore not a suitable source of relatable characters.

One of my favorite Star Trek movies is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The frequent allusions to Shakespeare are annoying, but the characters are well developed and believable. The subject of the movie is fear of the future, and futuristic technology is merely the backdrop against which a cold war morality tale is told.

A common trait of science fiction writing and movies is that science fiction stories are almost never developed as tragedies. They may have tragic figures– such as Darth Vader of the Star Wars series of movies– but the overall arc of a science fiction story is generally expected to result in the defeat of the forces of evil by those of the good. Is it possible for a science fiction writer to produce a true tragedy in the sense of one of Shakespeare’s great works? Perhaps, but such stories might never find an audience in today’s market.

And this poses what I consider to be the most interesting question about science fiction. Science fiction is inevitably about the future. The ‘science’ part of the term refers to technologies not presently available– but which might become available at some time in the future. People generally expect the future to be an improvement on the past. For that reason people tend to prefer stories about the future that are hopeful, not tragic. So is it even possible to write a truly tragic science fiction story?

The ‘science’ part of science fiction can too easily supplant the development of character. But it is equally possible to focus so exclusively on character development that all elements of science are so muted as to be irrelevant. At that point one may as well write about European kings.

In my view the great strength of science fiction is what it can tell us about our relationship to technology. Do we allow technology to rule our lives, to dictate our fates as did the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece? Or do we use technology for our own purposes, to our own ends, to the advantage of all? Shakespeare’s characters struggle with greed and guilt, confusion and uncertainty, indecision and indolence. Technology itself can elicit such struggles, and as an element of the story arc can serve to develop characters.

Science and technology have produced massive changes in human society. Technology will inevitably continue to shape our future. Science fiction can serve to give audiences a way to envision the impact that future technologies may have on the human psyche. When paired with strong character development in realistic human settings, such narratives can be very compelling. The challenge for the author is to balance character development against the narrative of technological influence. Too much in the direction of character development can dilute the technological aspects of the story arc; too much attention to technology can make the story sterile.

So is science fiction merely titillating entertainment of no serious value? Certainly it can be. Examples of shallow science fiction abound. But it can also challenge us to think about the directions our technologies are leading. If we want to be masters of our own fate, then we had best listen.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved.

Big oil missed a huge business opportunity

Climate change is forcing businesses to change. In the automotive industry there is now a massive effort underway to develop complete product lines of battery powered all-electric vehicles, apparently with the goal of one day eliminating all gas powered cars. That would certainly help to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But I’m not so sure that it’s what consumers actually want.

It takes 8 to 10 hours to charge a Tesla at 220 volts. The Tesla Supercharger can recharge a Tesla battery up to a 220 mile range in about 15 minutes. Imagine trying to travel cross-country with an all-electric car. A trip from Seattle Washington to Miami Florida is about 3300 miles by car. That would require 15 stops at a Tesla Supercharging station, with a 15 minute wait at each. If the only charging stations you can find along the way are wired for 220 volts, then you will have to spend 8 to 10 hours at each stop. That just doesn’t seem like something most road travelers would want to do.

What if there were another option– one that doesn’t produce carbon dioxide and that therefore doesn’t contribute to global warming, but one doesn’t require ridiculously long times to refuel? In fact such an option is available, right now, in the current marketplace. It’s hydrogen. The Toyota Mirai uses fuel cell technology that is powered by hydrogen and which produces nothing but water as its waste product. And it only takes five minutes to refuel.

The nation’s oil companies have one major advantage over any automotive manufacturer that dreams of replacing gas powered cars with all-electric cars. Oil companies have thousands of gas stations all across the country. Many, of course, are franchises, but all could quickly add hydrogen refueling stations. Consumers are already adapted to the pattern of refueling at a gas station. A five minute stop to refuel, with maybe a quick trip into the company-owned convenience store for a few snacks– and you’re back on the road again. That’s not a pattern that a battery powered all-electric car is ever likely to support.

The nation’s oil companies have known for a couple of decades that climate change was going to destroy their businesses. If they had been smart, they could have sided with the early developers of fuel cell technology (NASA has been using it for 50 years) to build a nationwide infrastructure that would support hydrogen powered cars with their existing gas station infrastructure. Doing so would have ensured the survival of their industry far into the future.

But instead the oil companies did everything they could to trick the American people into believing that climate change isn’t real, or that it isn’t caused by humans, or that it isn’t nearly as bad as tree-huggers claim. The cost was that they completely missed out on what was certainly one of the greatest business opportunities of all time.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved

Galactic Colonization

Galactic empires are common plot elements in science fiction writing. But as I showed in another post titled “Faster Than Light Travel,” the likelihood is that it will never be possible to maintain an empire stretching across the galaxy. The laws of physics, as we presently understand them, simply won’t support it.

But would it be at all feasible to colonize the galaxy? Yes, and in fact it’s almost inevitable– assuming our species and our culture can survive long enough. Let’s assume for the moment that it is possible to build a spacecraft that can accelerate to 1,000,000 miles per hour. That may sound extremely fast, but it’s only about 0.15% of the speed of light. Even so, it’s roughly three times faster than the fastest man made spacecraft ever built– the Parker Solar Probe. One light year is about 5.87×1012 miles. At 1,000,000 miles per hour it would take about 6700 years to travel ten light years. That may seem like an extremely long time– and it certainly is as compared to the history of human civilization. But as compared to the 225 million years that it takes the Earth to make one complete orbit around the center of the galaxy, it’s hardly anything at all.

The Earth’s orbit around the galactic center is roughly 170,000 light years in circumference. At the rate of 1,000,000 miles per hour it would take roughly 114 million years to traverse the Earth’s orbit. That’s only about half the time it would take the Earth itself to travel the same distance.

But there are plenty of complications in this broad overview. Spacecraft carrying humans to distant planets for the purposes of colonization must accelerate and decelerate. And it may be necessary to refuel, which might require slowing down to orbit a planet. All of that will take additional travel time.

We would also need to consider how to design a spacecraft to support human life for an extended period. There are only three major possibilities. First, the spacecraft could be designed to contain all the comforts of home. There would be gardens for growing food, recycling plants to reprocess waste, living quarters for each person on board, and air and water sufficient to support every living thing aboard the spacecraft.

This option is the most difficult and most costly to implement, and it is the one most prone to catastrophic failure. Any leak in the air system, however minute, could result in a complete loss of atmosphere by the end of a 6700 year voyage. Any failure of the agricultural systems would mean starvation for the entire crew. And normal wear on the complex systems involved could mean that crucial equipment fails long before the spacecraft arrives at its required destination. One can provide spare parts, or the raw materials necessary to fabricate any part on the spacecraft– but all of that would add weight, and additional weight adds a requirement for additional fuel, and additional cost.

An important fact to bear in mind about this option is that a 6700 year voyage means that there will be hundreds of generations of people who live and die aboard the spacecraft. There will be no room aboard for cemeteries, so the bodies of those who die will have to be recycled back into the agricultural systems.

The second option is to put the members of the crew into some form of suspended animation. Ideally we should like the crew to be maintained in a state that requires no air, no water, and no nourishment to maintain their bodies for a 6700 year period of time. And of course we would want to revive each passenger after the voyage with no significant loss of physical or mental capabilities. No one has ever found a way to do that. Assuming that it becomes possible in some as-of-yet unforeseen future, this option would require far fewer supplies and complex systems than the first.

But it is not without its own risks. When the spacecraft finally reaches its destination, a site must be chosen for landing and disembarkation. The personnel could be awoken as the spacecraft approaches the selected target planet, thereby permitting the decision to be made by humans. But there remains the possibility that the chosen destination planet is not a good option for colonization, and the spacecraft must travel on to another planet or perhaps another star system. That would require putting those crew members who have been awoken back into suspended animation, and that may involve its own unpleasant side effects. Alternatively, the spacecraft could be designed to survey the planet, check for required living conditions, and select an optimal spot for landing– without human intervention. That would clearly require a highly sophisticated system of software– one which can run for thousands of years without a hitch.

The third option is less of a realistic option than it is a dream. The spacecraft would not be transporting humans, but rather only human gametes. Once the ship arrives at its destination the male and female gametes would be allowed to fertilize and grow.

This last method would appear to require the least resources of the three. It would afford fewer opportunities for catastrophic failure, and it would require less fuel. But it would also require a method for raising and educating the infants that would result. And who will do that?

There is only one possible answer to that question– robots. An army of robots would have to attend to the infants as they are born. That would require feeding, bathing, playing, teaching– not the sorts of activities one ordinarily associates with robots. The robots would have to behave very much like humans– though it isn’t necessarily the case that they would have to look like humans. And of course the robots would have to provide all of the background information necessary to help the children adapt to their new environment.

Once a spacecraft designed for this third option arrives at its destination, the children will have to grow up in an environment that supports all aspects of human life. There will need to be systems for agriculture, waste processing, air filtration, water reclamation– everything that is required to support human society. But that environment would have to be developed and maintained without human intervention, until such time as the children have matured to the point at which they can take over all aspects of operation. That interim environment would therefore have to be built and maintained by the robots.

In some respects this last option is the most complex. It would require a level of robotic sophistication far beyond anything that has thus far been developed. But over the course of the next several centuries, it just might be possible.

This highlights another important aspect of galactic colonization– the search for viable planets. Before embarking on a 6700 year mission it would be best to get a fair idea of which destination planets are likely to be most habitable. We would want to know that the planet has an atmosphere with plenty of oxygen, that it’s surface temperature falls within an acceptable range, that it has liquid water on its surface, that it gets plenty of light from its star, that it isn’t already occupied by a hostile species… All of these conditions are very difficult to assess from a distance of several light years. That means it is highly possible to travel for thousands of years only to find that the chosen planet is unsuitable.

It will therefore be necessary to send advance unmanned probes first. These probes should be small, but would be outfitted with a full array of sensors. They should be set off on their travel to the stars at a significant percentage of the speed of light. At 50% of the speed of light a probe could reach a star 10 light years distant in 20 years and could return its findings to Earth in 30 years. A 50% speed of light velocity might attainable via a slingshot route around a nearby star. Such a route would undoubtedly result in g forces too extreme for human passengers, but should do no harm to unmanned probe.

Ideally we would want each probe to land on a planet, take physical samples, and assess the planet’s suitability to human habitation. In a system with multiple potential planets we would want these probes to visit as many planets as possible. That means each probe will need to be independently maneuverable, which means more fuel, and therefore more weight, and therefore more complexity, and greater cost.

Another major problem with colonization concerns the problem of adapting the environment of the chosen planet to human life. We can carry with us a storehouse of knowledge as to how to smelt ores, build power plants, pump water, grow food, build houses. But what if the planet’s atmosphere has too little (or too much!) oxygen? Or too little carbon dioxide? What if the surface is too cold for growing crops? What if water is only available deep underground? What if there is a bacterium that is airborne and fatal to human life? What if there is an intelligent life form that is hostile to our intervention? The potential problems of living on a completely alien world are innumerable.

This suggests that the best option is a multi-phase process. First, exploratory probes evaluate each potentially habitable planet. To those which qualify, a team of robots is sent to establish a human habitation, with all the systems necessary for the operation of a human colony. Once habitations have been built, then humans can be placed on transports to carry them to the colonies.

There will be plenty of time to assess and address these problems. It may be that we will have to be extremely choosy in evaluating planets for habitation. We shouldn’t expect that suitable planets will always be available along our preferred routes through the galaxy.

Interstellar travel is certain to be much harder than science fiction writers have thus far described it to be. It will take time– quite a long time, I suspect– to develop a process for galactic colonization. The opportunity is undoubtedly immense. Billions of stars and planets, each with its own geology, biology, wonder, and possibility. But there is really no guarantee that any planet within a reasonable distance would be suitable to our habitation. There will undoubtedly be a great deal to learn.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore. All rights reserved.

Faster Than Light Travel

Humans have explored the globe, traveled faster than the speed of sound, and gone to the Moon. Humans have learned secrets of the universe that no other species of our planet could possibly comprehend. Surely it will be only a matter of years, or perhaps decades, before humanity will begin traveling to the stars.

How hard can it be? We were told in the early decades of the twentieth century that no aircraft would ever be able to exceed the speed of sound. Yet on October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager became the first person to do exactly that. And now aircraft repeat that astounding feat with routine aplomb. Surely breaking the speed of light barrier will be no different. Once we learn how to do it, we’ll build spacecraft that will flip into faster-than-light mode (FTL) as readily as a car switches into overdrive.

Before we attempt to understand the notion of FTL, we should first try to understand just how vast our galaxy truly is. The Milky Way galaxy is somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 light years in diameter, and the Earth is about 27,000 light years from its center. Hence the Earth traverses an orbit roughly 170,000 light years in circumference for each of its 225 million year revolutions about the galaxy’s center. A spacecraft traveling at the speed of light would therefore require 170,000 years to make one complete circumnavigation of the Earth’s orbit. And that allows no time at all for either acceleration or deceleration. There would therefore be no time in that 170,000 years to stop and smell the flowers on any of the millions of planets one might encounter along the way.

The speed of light is about 186,000 miles per second. That’s about 669,600,000 miles per hour. The fastest human created spacecraft as of this writing is the Parker Solar Probe, which has used the tremendous gravitational field of the Sun to accelerate to 330,000 miles per hour. That is less than 0.05% of the speed of light! At that rate it would take the Parker Solar Probe more than 340 million years to traverse Earth’s orbit. That’s actually longer than it takes the Earth to make the same circuit!

Those who dream of galactic empire must confront the hard realities of the sheer size of our galaxy. The first galactic explorers will certainly want to chart the star systems they encounter– taking note of the habitable planets they discover, as well as those which are already inhabited. And they will undoubtedly need to refuel along the way. To stop long enough to survey a planet will require deceleration and acceleration– all of which will cost fuel, and time. To conduct such a reconnaissance mission at the measly rate of the Parker Solar Probe would ensure that by the time the explorers return to Earth, human civilization would have evolved into something vastly different than what it was at the time of departure.

Information is key to maintaining an empire. Desperate events in distant quarters may require a speedy reallocation of resources. To simply know that there is a problem requiring attention at the far end of a galactic empire would require a messaging system that can traverse the intervening distance in a reasonable time. On a galactic scale, that means the signal must travel faster than light. If the message implies that resources must be reallocated to address the issue, then those resources must themselves be transported in a reasonable time. “Reasonable” in the context of a galactic scope means within minutes or hours, not millenia.

Let’s imagine that the Earth is the seat of a galactic government, and that on the opposite side of the galaxy, about 54,000 light years distant, the local governor of a planet calls for aid in putting down a rebellion. At the speed of light it would take 54,000 years for the governor’s call to reach Earth. That’s not an actionable time.

But even at 54,000 times the speed of light it would still take one full year for the governor’s call for aid to reach the seat of power. In most cases news that arrives a year after the fact is too late to be useful. To reduce the travel time to one hour, the message would have to travel 8,766 times faster still– or 473,364,000 times faster than light!

Science fiction stories of galactic empire routinely mention traveling at two, three, four, or even ten times the speed of light, as if that were so astonishingly fast that it should be possible to travel anywhere in the galaxy in just a matter of hours. But in fact it’s not even remotely fast enough to hold an empire of galactic dimensions together.

If the sound barrier could be broken, why can’t we break the speed-of-light barrier? The reason is that the two barriers are of two completely different categories. The sound “barrier” was a concern raised by materials engineers of the times that no airplane fuselage could be designed to withstand the terrible shock wave that would be created by exceeding the speed of sound. It was chiefly a problem of materials.

But the speed-of-light barrier is altogether different. The two foundational principles of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity are that (a) all signals exchanged throughout the universe propagate via electromagnetic radiation (including visible light); and that (b) the speed of light is constant for all observers, regardless of their relative velocities. These two seemingly innocuous assertions have tremendous ramifications– one of which is that no physical object can travel faster than the speed of light. More than that, it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate a physical object to the speed of light!

But the weirdness of Einstein’s Relativity doesn’t stop there. As an object accelerates, its internal clock slows down. And in fact the clock of an object traveling at the speed of light actually stops completely. A beam of light experiences no time! So even if you could accelerate to the speed of light, your clock would stop. You would never age– but you would also never have any more thoughts. And consequently you could never observe the stars or planets you pass by, never plan where to go next, never decide to slow down or stop.

These strange consequences of Einstein’s simple claims have been repeatedly tested. Relativistic principles even had to be considered in the design of the Global Positioning Satellite System. So even a cell phone provides daily proof of the fact that Einstein was right when it simply accesses the GPS system.

Is there any loophole anywhere in Einstein’s reasoning? Doesn’t Quantum Entanglement mean that messages can be transmitted at essentially an infinite speed? The inflationary period of the Big Bang theory is a time when the universe expanded at more than 1021 times the speed of light. Doesn’t that say that Einstein was wrong?

Quantum entanglement isn’t likely to provide a useful solution as it is only capable of propagating quantum states. Two particles are said to be entangled if their quantum states are strongly correlated. In this case knowledge of one particle’s state instantaneously conveys knowledge of the other’s. But if one particle is disturbed, information about that disturbance can only be conveyed from one particle to the other at the speed of light. So although entanglement seems to offer the promise of instantaneous transmission of information, it does not support the notion of instantaneous transport of a physical force at a speed faster than light. And therefore it doesn’t really provide a way to transport a physical object from one location to another at a faster-than-light velocity. At least, not as presently understood.

As for the theory of inflation, the mechanism that would have triggered inflation isn’t known. It has been hypothesized by the advocates of the inflationary theory that gravitational attraction could have been flipped to repulsion in the very first instant’s of the universe’s existence by the presence of an extremely small amount of “exotic matter.”

So all we have to do is just create some of this “exotic matter” and we should be able to go as fast as we want, right? Uh, well… The current model of inflation only requires an extremely minute amount of exotic matter (relative to the total amount of matter in the universe) to cause the entire universe to expand exponentially. It doesn’t seem like it would be a good idea to create such a volatile material without knowing exactly how to handle it– unless you don’t mind blowing up the entire universe as part of your FTL experiment.

The only way out of the dilemma posed by the Theory of Relativity, as I see it, is to reconsider the first of Einstein’s two pronouncements– that all signals throughout the universe are conveyed by forms of electromagnetic radiation. Consider the human body. Our bodies are comprised of materials that consist of molecules, which are built up from atoms held together by atomic bonds. Atomic bonds are based on electromagnetic attraction. The present day theory of electromagnetic interaction, Quantum Electrodynamics, holds that electromagnetism is the result of the exchange of photons between charged particles. That exchange of photons happens at the speed of light, c.

But what if there is some other type of physical signal that can travel at a speed much faster than that of light? Let us suppose, for example, that there is another type of matter, call it FTL Matter, that is able to travel at speeds much greater than that of light. Suppose further that interactions between particles of such matter are propagated by some type of radiation that also travels at a speed much faster than the speed of light– call it c’. Now let’s go back to the primary assertions of Special Relativity and reframe them in terms of FTL Matter:

(a) All signals exchanged between particles of FTL Matter travel at the velocity c’.

(b) The speed c’ is constant for all observers comprised of FTL Matter in the universe.

From these two fundamental assumptions a new set of Lorentz transformations can be derived that involve c’ rather than c, and in all other respects the physics of FTL Matter would parallel those of ordinary matter. And this would establish a new cosmic speed limit c’, rather than c, for all FTL Matter.

So can we use some of this FTL Matter for FTL travel to distant parts of the galaxy? Perhaps the method would be to build an engine that consumes FTL Matter fuel, using the laws of FTL Matter physics, to propel a spacecraft made of ordinary matter to velocities close to c’. Sounds enticing, but at present nobody knows if there is any such thing as FTL Matter, or if the idea of constructing an FTL Matter engine is even remotely feasible.

Breaking the speed-of-light barrier is a completely different category of problem from that of breaking the sound barrier. This isn’t simply a problem of materials engineering, though there may very well be a serious question as to what happens to ordinary matter when it is accelerated to a velocity greater than c. The real problem is at the most fundamental level of the physics of our universe. Thus far, the Special and General Theories of Relativity have survived every test to which they have been subjected– and so they represent the very best knowledge we presently have of how our universe works.

I realize that this isn’t what fans of science fiction want to hear. They want to believe that we will soon be exploring the length and breadth of the galaxy, and will soon be trying to figure out how to travel to other galaxies beyond our own. Given what we presently know about the way matter behaves in our universe, it seems extremely unlikely that FTL travel will ever be possible. And that means that exploration and colonization of the Milky Way galaxy will proceed at a slower-than-light speed and will therefore take millions of years.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved.

Biblical Chronology, part 3

The chronology of the Old Testament is convoluted and difficult to reconcile with known historical events. In the article titled “Biblical Chronology – Part 2” I presented a mapping that puts the date of the creation of Adam at 4117 BCE. That mapping is based on the known historical date of the invasion of the Levant (which we know as Lebanon today) by the Pharaoh Shishonq I in 925 BCE.

But there are other historical events to which we could have pinned those in the Old Testament. Ideally we would like to match all of the following historical events to their corresponding events in the biblical timeline:

  • The conquest and sacking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BCE, which is mentioned in 2 Kings 25:1 – 7
  • The battle of Carchemish in 605 BCE, described in Jeremiah 46:2
  • Defeat of Josiah, king of Judah, by the Pharaoh Nekau II in 609 BCE, mentioned in 2 Kings 22:21 and 2 Kings 23:28 – 30
  • The conquest of Samaria by Shalmaneser V in 722 BCE, described in 2 Kings 18:10 – 11
  • The attack of Jerusalem by the Pharaoh Shishonq I in 925 BCE, described in 1 Kings 14:25

There are portions of the biblical chronology related to all of the above to be found in 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Haggai. In addition the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke have genealogies for Jesus. Matthew’s goes back to Abraham, and Luke’s goes back to Adam. But there are several problems with these various timelines:

  • Luke’s list includes a man, Cainan, son of Aphraxad, who is nowhere to be found in any Old Testament book.
  • Luke’s list matches Matthew’s list between Abraham and King David, but Luke lists Nathan rather than Solomon as the son of King David– and their two lists disagree on all but two names (Shialtiel and Zerubbabel) between King David and Joseph the father of Jesus. This means that Matthew and Luke disagree about the identity of the father of Joseph.
  • Between King David and Joseph Matthew’s chronology lists 26 generations; Luke lists 41. That represents a difference of roughly 300 years.
  • The names in Matthew’s list between King David and Zerubbabel don’t always agree with histories found in the Old Testament.
  • The books of Kings and Chronicles record the histories of two different kingdoms– Israel and Judah. Jerusalem was the capital of Judah; Samaria was the capital of Israel. The lists of the kings of these two kingdoms reference each other. For example, 1 Kings 16:28 says that Ahab became king of Israel when Asa was in his 38th year of kingship over Judah. These cross-linked relationships are difficult to untangle, and they have gaps.
  • Some of the times reported in the Old Testament books could not possibly work. For example, 2 Kings 15:33 says that Jotham reigned Judah for 16 years. But 2 Kings 15:30 says that Hoshea killed the King of Israel in the 20th year of Jotham’s reign, which would be impossible if Jotham only reigned for 16 years. And 2 Kings 17:1 says that Hoshea began his rule in the 12th year of the rule of King Ahaz of Israel, which would put the date of his ascension to power 7 years later.

Given these various constraints it is simply not possible to map the 5 key historical events listed above to the biblical timeline with absolute assurance. The following list is, I think, about the best that can be done. It starts at the time of the Pharaoh Shishonq I and works forward in time. This is an abbreviated listing, as it only shows the kings of Judah. To get a full understanding of the overall timeline you need to show the timeline of the kings of Judah alongside those of Israel. Another issue to keep in mind is that the names in this listing are specific to the Revised Standard translation. Bear in mind that there are some differences in the spellings of proper names from one translation to another.

  • 925 BCE: Invasion of the Levant by the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishonq I in the 5th year of the reign of Rehoboam, King of Israel. (1 Kings 14:25)
  • 913 BCE: Abijah began his reign as King of Judah in the 18th year of the reign of Jeroboam, King of Israel. (1 Kings 14:31)
  • 911 BCE: King Abijah is killed by God andAsa began his reign as King of Judah in the 20th year of the reign of Jeroboam, King of Israel. (1 Kings 15:9)
  • 869 BCE: King Asa died after ruling for 41 years and Jehoshaphat began his reign as King of Judah in the 4th year of the reign of King Ahab of Israel. (1 Kings 22:41 – 42)
  • 844 BCE: King Jehoshaphat died after ruling for 25 years and his son Jehoram began his reign as King of Judah in the 5th year of the reign of King Joram / Jehoram of Israel. (Should be the 7th year.) (2 Kings 8:16 – 17)
  • 839 BCE: Ahaziah began his reign as King of Judah in the 12th year of the reign of Joram / Jehoram of Israel. (2 Kings 8:25 – 26)
  • 837 BCE: Athaliah killed her son Ahaziah and took control of the throne of Judah after Ahaziah had ruled for 1 year. (2 Kings 11:1 – 3)
  • 831 BCE: The temple guards killed Athaliah and put Joash / Jehoash on the throne in the 7th year of Jehu’s reign as King of Israel. (2 Kings 12:1)
  • 811 BCE – 809 BCE: GAP of 2 years with no King of Israel
  • 791 BCE: The servants of Joash / Jehoash killed him in the 40th year of his reign and his son Amaziah began his reign as King of Judah in the 2nd year of Joash King of Israel. (2 Kings 14:1)
  • 764 BCE: King Amaziah died 15 years after the death of King Joash / Jehoash of Israel. (2 Kings 14:17)
  • 763 BCE – 750 BCE: GAP of 13 years with no King of Judah
  • 750 BCE: Azariah / Uzziah began his reign as King of Judah in the 27th year of Jeroboam III’s reign as King of Israel. (2 Kings 14:21)
  • 736 BCE – 712 BCE: GAP of 24 years with no King of Israel
  • 698 BCE: King Azariah / Uzziah died after ruling for 52 years.
  • 698 BCE – 696 BCE: GAP of 2 years with no King of Judah
  • 696 BCE: Jotham, son of Azariah / Uzziah, began his reign as King of Judah in the 2nd year of Pekah, King of Israel. (2 Kings 15:32 – 33)
  • 681 BCE: King Jotham died and his son Ahaz began his reign as King of Judah in the 17th year of Pekah, King of Israel. (2 Kings 15:38, 2 Kings 16:1 – 2)
  • 678 – 669 BCE: Hoshea killed King Pekah of Israel and began his rule as King of Israel. (There are three different reports of when and how this happened in 2 Kings 15:30, 2 Kings 15:33, and 2 Kings 17:1. Several of the following dates are calculated from this date. I believe that the only date that makes sense in the context of what follows is 669 BCE.)
  • 665 BCE: King Ahaz of Judah died after ruling for 16 years. (2 Kings 16:2)
  • 666 BCE: Hezekiah began his reign as King of Judah in the 3rd year of Hoshea’s reign as King of Israel. (This only makes sense if we use the date of 669 BCE for the killing of King Pekah.) (2 Kings 16:2, 2 Kings 18:1)
  • 660 BCE: King Shalmaneser V of Assyria attacked Samaria in the 7th year of Hoshea’s reign as King of Israel. (2 Kings 18:9). The historical date for this event is 722 BCE.
  • 637 BCE: Hezekiah died after ruling as King of Judah for 29 years. His son Mannaseh began his reign as King of Judah. (2 Kings 20:21; 2 Kings 21:1)
  • 582 BCE: Amon began his reign as King of Judah when his father Mannaseh died after ruling for 55 years. (2 Kings 21:18 – 20)
  • 580 BCE: Josiah began his reign as King of Judah when his father Amon was killed after ruling for 2 years. (2 Kings 21:26; 2 Kings 22:1)
  • 549 BCE: King Josiah was killed at Megiddo by Pharaoh Nekau II. (2 Kings 22:21; 2 Kings 23:28 – 30) The historical date is 609 BCE.
  • 549 BCE: King Josiah’s son Jehoahaz reigned as King of Judah until he was taken captive by Pharaoh Neco after 3 months.
  • 549 BCE: Eliakim, the second son of King Josiah, was made King of Judah by Pharaoh Nekau II and was renamed to Jehoiakim. (2 Kings 34 – 36; I Chronicles 3:15)
  • 545 BCE: Pharaoh Nekau II was defeated by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon at Carchemish in the 4th year of King Jehoiakim’s reign. (Jeremiah 46:2) The historical date for this event is 605 BCE.
  • 538 BCE: Jehoiachin became King of Judah following the death of his father Jehoiakim after 11 years of rule. (2 Kings 23:36)
  • 527 BCE: King Jehoiachin and the officials and artisans of Judah were carried off to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar in the 11th year of Jehoiachin’s reign. (2 Kings 24:10 – 17; Jeremiah 24)
  • 527 BCE: King Nebuchadnezzar made Jehoiachin’s uncle Mattaniah king of Jerusalem and renamed him Zedekiah. (2 Kings 24:17)
  • 516 BCE: Nebuchadnezzar laid seige to Jerusalem and took it in the 11th year of Zedekiah’s reign and carried off all survivors as captives to Babylon. (2 Kings 25:1 – 7) The historical date for this event is 587 BCE.

The key differences from the above list are as follows:

  • 660 BCE: King Shalmaneser V of Assyria attacked Samaria in the 7th year of Hoshea’s reign as King of Israel. (2 Kings 18:9). The historical date for this event is 722 BCE, a difference of 62 years.
  • 549 BCE: King Josiah was killed at Megiddo by Pharaoh Nekau II. (2 Kings 22:21; 2 Kings 23:28 – 30) The historical date is 609 BCE, a difference of 60 years.
  • 545 BCE: Pharaoh Nekau II was defeated by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon at Carchemish in the 4th year of King Jehoiakim’s reign. (Jeremiah 46:2) The historical date for this event is 605 BCE, a difference of 60 years.
  • 516 BCE: Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem and took it in the 11th year of Zedekiah’s reign and carried off all survivors as captives to Babylon. (2 Kings 25:1 – 7) The historical date for this event is 587 BCE, a difference of 71 years.

So there is a difference of between 60 and 71 years. That’s about a 17 to 21 percent error over the 338 years between 925 BCE and 587 BCE. But 41 of those years can be accounted for by the gaps in the biblical chronology that I have highlighted above. If those gaps are simply errors in the record, then that would reduce the discrepancy to a range of 19 to 30 years, or a 5 to 9 percent error. Another possibility is that they actually do represent periods of time when there were no kings of either Israel or Judah.

Part of that difference might be due to a confusion of names. At one point a king named Joram or Jehoram ruled as King of Israel at the same time that another man named Joram or Jehoram ruled as King of Judah. And later, a man named Joash or Jehoash reigned as King in Israel while another man named Joash or Jehoash ruled as King of Judah.

Copyright (c) 2020 by David S. Moore

All rights reserved.

Rahab’s deceit and betrayal

According to the book of Joshua God made it possible for the Israelites to conquer the city of Jericho by tearing down the city’s high walls:

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have given into your hand Jericho, with its king and mighty men of valor. You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus they shall do for six days. And seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark; and on the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, the priests blowing the trumpets. And when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, as soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people shall go up every man straight before him.”

Joshua 6:2 – 5, Revised Standard Version

As the following passages relate, Joshua did exactly as God directed, and indeed the walls did collapse on the seventh day when the whole army gave a shout.

On the seventh day they rose early at the dawn of day, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times: it was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, “Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction; only Rahab the harlot and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers that we sent.”

Joshua 6:15 – 17 RSV

So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city. Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword.

Joshua 6:20 – 21, RSV

Notice that the story states that the prostitute Rahab and all of those in her company were to be spared. The reason given is that Rahab hid the “messengers” that Joshua sent to Jericho prior to their attack. But just who were these messengers? The Bible tells us in the following passage:

And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.”

Joshua 2:1, RSV

So! The “messengers” were spies! They weren’t sent to convey a message from the Israelites to the people of Jericho; they were sent to gather intelligence on the city!

Once the spies arrived at Jericho they quickly found out that the people of Jericho were afraid of the Israelites.

Before they lay down, she came up to them on the roof, and said to the men, “I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed.

Joshua 2:8 – 10, RSV

The people of Jericho were terrified of what the God of the Israelites might do to their city. They knew what happened to the Pharaoh’s army, and to the cities of Sihon and Og. So with the entire city of Jericho on the lookout for Israelites, how did the two Israeli spies escape from Jericho without being caught?  The Bible tells us exactly how they managed it in this passage.

Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was built into the city wall, so that she dwelt in the wall.

Joshua 2:15, RSV

So!  Rahab’s house was part of the mighty walls of Jericho– and all that was needed to scale those walls was a simple rope thrown from the window of her house!  The book of Joshua makes it very clear that the walls of Jericho were destroyed by the power of God. As appealing as that narrative might be, a much more likely possibility is that Rahab simply threw a rope from the window of her house– and the Israelites climbed up the rope, perhaps the night before the attack, and brought a strike force into Rahab’s house. Then Rahab and the others of her family were let down the rope to safety. And the next day, when the Israelite priests blew their trumpets, the strike force fought its way to the city’s main gate, threw it open, and caught the city by surprise.

That version of the story explains how the Israelites could have brought down the walls of a great city without the use of siege engines. It accounts for the need of the spies. And it fully explains why the Israelites would have been so willing to grant safety to Rahab and the others of her household. Rahab made the conquest of Jericho easy.

Rahab betrayed her entire people– the residents of Jericho.  The two Israeli spies guaranteed her safety (and that of the members of her family) in exchange for their lives.  And all she had to do to obtain a new life as a member of Israelite society was to throw a rope out her window.

Copyright (c) 2020, David S. Moore

All rights reserved

No one is a true libertarian

Libertarianism is a philosophy that says, in effect, you take care of you and I’ll take care of me and everything will work out fine. On the surface this philosophy seems perfectly reasonable. As I go through life I am faced with choices that I make every day. When I get paid by my employer I have money in my pocket. I can spend that money on housing, transportation, food, or education– or I can spend it on drink, drugs, or partying. If I make good choices throughout my life I am likely to be rewarded for my good behavior. If I work hard, most employers will recognize that and are likely to give me greater responsibilities, more opportunity, better pay. But if I make bad choices, if I fritter away my money on frivolity and hedonistic pleasures, I am very likely to wind up with no savings, no family, no home, no future. So if I am honest and hard working and if I save money for my future why should I pay to help those who make bad choices? Everyone should be responsible for his or her own livelihood. Those who fail to take responsibility should expect that society will not reward them for their failure.

This is a perfectly reasonable argument, so far as it goes. But it does make some underlying assumptions that aren’t obvious, and that most people don’t actually believe. The first such assumption is that everyone has an employer. The fact is that some people just aren’t employable. Persons with severe physical or mental disabilities generally fall into this category, though the boundary of this group has been eroded by advances in technology and public toleration. For example, Stephen Hawking suffered from a debilitating neurological disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS) and yet he was able to make tremendous contributions to physics and to the public understanding of science generally. But some people, through no fault of their own, are born with conditions that make it impossible for them to work in any capacity whatsoever. Some people develop conditions such as heart disease or stroke that incapacitate them. Most people, myself included, believe that society has a responsibility to care for those who cannot care for themselves.

Another problem with the libertarian view as I have outlined it above concerns the fact that some people are in fact capable of change. I once met a man who was a recovering alcoholic. He told me that he had once been an IBM systems salesman. At that time (the mid-1980s) that would have been a position at the absolute pinnacle of the American workforce. But he was a drinker, and his drinking consumed him. He lost his job, lost his wife and family, his house– everything. Finally– when he had reached rock bottom– he realized that he had to change his life. He joined AA, worked at it, kicked his habit, and got back into the workforce selling PC software. People sometimes can turn their lives around, can decide to remake themselves, to make amends for their poor choices. And sometimes that works. I think that society owes such people a second chance, and a helping hand up.

Mind you, I also recognize that there are some people who can never be changed. Ted Bundy is, to my mind, the quintessential example of this sort of person. He was addicted to killing. He enjoyed it, enjoyed the power he felt over his victims, and he was never going to stop killing until society put him away. Differentiating between those who are earnest in their desire to change and those who will never change is hard. My general rule of thumb is that I’m willing to give anyone a first chance to earn my trust. And I’ll offer most people a second chance, so long as they can demonstrate to me that they’re sincere– but the burden of proof is on them, not me.

Where libertarianism completely falls apart is in the broader context of society generally. Consider pollution. Suppose we have two businesses A and B, both of which manufacture the same product. Suppose further that Business A is mindful of its impact on the environment and disposes of its waste responsibly. But Business B is owned by a true libertarian who believes that businesses should only consider their own interests and profits without giving any consideration to the general condition of society at large. So Business B simply dumps all of its solid and liquid waste into the nearest river or stream and pumps all of its gaseous waste into the atmosphere. Business B will therefore have a lower cost of operation and will therefore be able to undercut Business A on price. And in the long run the market will reward Business B with more sales and profits. The inevitable end result is a race to the bottom in which responsible disposers of waste are forced out of the market and those businesses that remain are the worst polluters.

A libertarian apologist might argue that this is all perfectly reasonable since consumers can choose which products they prefer. If they want clean air and water then they can elect to purchase only from corporations that properly dispose of their wastes. But that assumes that consumers have enough information to make such choices. The fact is that businesses lie, and they have the means to make their lies seem reasonable. Cigarette manufacturers lied for decades about the relationship between tobacco and cancer. They even hired people with advanced degrees to argue that the science on the matter was not definitive. Consumers were confronted with two completely different narratives on tobacco products. The Surgeon General argued that tobacco products increase the risk of getting cancer while the tobacco companies claimed that the science was not conclusive and that cigarette smoking does not cause cancer. Only later was discovered that the tobacco companies had known for decades that everything the Surgeon General had said about their products was true. When consumers have deeply flawed or incomplete information on which to base their purchase decisions they can’t be expected to make sound choices.

No one– not even the most strident libertarian– wants to breathe polluted air or drink poisoned water. There is only one way to prevent businesses from spewing their waste into our rivers, streams, and atmosphere, and that is by enacting and enforcing regulation. Businesses that pollute should be punished for the harm they do to society. The marketplace generally cannot do that and therefore it is the responsibility of society as a whole to provide the punishment that capital markets cannot.

The ultimate problem that libertarianism cannot address is climate change. The planet’s climate is being radically altered by human behavior– that much is now undeniable. Limiting or reducing the adverse effects of climate change is something that will require the cooperative efforts of all societies on the planet. It is not a problem that can be addressed by entrusting each individual to act in their own self interest.

In contemporary discourse libertarians often argue that the regulation of business violates libertarian principles. The libertarian philosophy that applies to individuals, so the reasoning goes, should also apply to businesses as they are simply agglomerations of individuals. That philosophy holds that individuals should be held accountable for their own failings. Since the marketplace holds businesses accountable by punishing mismanagement there is no reason for society– or the government– to impose additional constraints. But that reasoning fails to account for the kinds of problems that can only be solved by moderating social behavior generally. Pollution and climate change are two of the best examples of such problems, though there are others as well. No one– not even the most strident libertarian– wants to breathe polluted air, drink polluted water, or live in a locale that is too hot or too wet for human life. And therefore no one is a true libertarian.

Copyright (c) 2020 by David S. Moore. All rights reserved.