Did scientists discover a “missing day” as predicted in the Bible?

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Dear Cecil: Please debunk the “missing day” theory described in the enclosed flyer. Ross Rhone, Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Debunk it? Hey, I want to believe in it. I also want to believe that Jimmy Hoffa and Elvis are running a 7-Eleven in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Unfortunately, we’re out of luck on all counts.

The best known version of the tale, a classic bit of “xeroxlore” that creationists have been passing around for more than 20 years, is attributed to one Harold Hill, supposedly a consultant to the NASA space program. It seems a bunch of “astronauts and space scientists” at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, were using a computer to calculate the orbits of the sun, moon, and planets so that a satellite sent up today would not crash into something a hundred years from now. This entailed figuring the position of the heavenly bodies many centuries into the past. (Why I don’t know; I’m just telling the story.)

After a while the computer halted and “put up a red signal, which meant that there was something wrong either with the information fed into it or with the results as compared to the standards.” On investigating, the scientists found there was “a day missing in space in elapsed time.” They were puzzled until a “religious fellow on the team” recalled a passage in the Bible (Joshua 10:12-13) where Joshua asked the Lord to make the sun stand still until he could defeat his enemies. The Lord obliged, and the sun stood still “about a whole day.”

Damn, the missing day! shouted the scientists. Not quite. After further calculations they concluded that the missing “elapsed time” in Joshua’s day was only 23 hours and 20 minutes, not a full day.

Then the religious fellow had another brainstorm. He recalled that in II Kings 20:9-11 Hezekiah prevailed upon the prophet Isaiah to ask the Lord to make the sun go backward 10 degrees. No problemo, said the Lord.

“Ten degrees is exactly 40 minutes,” the tale concludes. “Twenty-three hours and 20 minutes in Joshua, plus 40 minutes in II Kings make the missing 24 hours the space travelers had to log in the logbook as being the missing day in the universe. Isn’t that amazing? Our God is rubbing their noses in His Truth!”

Well. The folks from NASA sensibly point out that they have no need to compute orbits thousands of years into the past and future because the typical satellite lasts only a dozen years. Nonetheless there may be a germ of truth to the “missing day” story.

NASA spokesman Charles Redmond points out that in the early 1960s, when scientists were first using computers to figure out orbits for the manned space program, there was a discrepancy of about 20 seconds between Universal Time (basically Greenwich Mean Time) and so-called ephemeris time, i.e., the “real” time based on astronomical observations. A 20 second error when you’re trying to bring a manned spacecraft down to earth is enough to put the astronauts in somebody’s back yard in Orlando rather in the ocean where they’re supposed to be. So the scientists jiggered the numbers to get UT synchronized with real time. (This is handled today by throwing in leap seconds every few years.)

These adjustments may have been the basis of Harold Hill’s story. But there wasn’t any missing day, and it certainly didn’t have anything to do with the Book of Joshua. I should point out that Hill wasn’t a NASA consultant; his firm did diesel engine maintenance and such for the space agency.

Creationists have been trying to work the “missing day” angle for a long time. Folklorist Jan Brunvand — Jan and I have gotten to be good buddies over the past few years — says he unearthed a story about an alleged confrontation between an unbelieving scientist and C.A. Totten, an eccentric military instructor at Yale in the 1890s. Totten, who became notorious for his wild theories about science and religion, supposedly made a believer out of an agnostic astronomer by pointing out a “missing day” in the latter’s calculations that could only be accounted for by the passages from Joshua and II Kings. It’s the kind of story that only a true believer could love, since it makes no sense to anybody else.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.