Practical Shipbuilding

Early editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica accepted Noah’s ark as real, to the point of discussing how the animals were arranged and fed:

Bishop Wilkins computes all the carnivorous animals equivalent, as to the bulk of their bodies, and their food, to 27 wolves; and all the rest to 280 beeves. For the former, he allows 1825 sheep; and for the latter, 109,500 cubits of hay; all which will be easily contained in the two first stories, and a deal of room to spare.

That’s from the 1797 edition. By 1860, realizing that an ark couldn’t possibly accommodate all the world’s species, Britannica suggested that the flood had covered only the parts of the earth inhabited by men. By 1911 it was describing the whole story as myth — and in 1960 it remarked on the “many ingenious and curious theories” that had once been advanced to support the story.

Seeing and Believing

John Dalton was a tornado of English science, exploring atomic theory, meteorology, perception, and the physics of gases with equal avidity.

But he was a Quaker, and when in 1834 he was invited to be presented to William IV, the question arose whether he could properly appear in the scarlet robes of an Oxford doctor of laws, as the color was forbidden to him.

Dalton solved this neatly: He pointed out that he was color-blind. “You call it scarlet,” he said. “To me its color is that of nature — the color of green leaves.”

Faith Extended

Robert Peary’s attempts to reach the North Pole raised a curious question for Jewish scholars: How should Jewish law, which normally assumes a 24-hour day, be interpreted in the land of the midnight sun?

Writing in New Era in 1905, J.D. Eisenstein asked, “Which is the seventh day, or Sabbath? and when is Yom Kippur to be observed around the North Pole, where the day and night are of about six months’ duration?”

If one reckoned by daylight, “As to Yom Kippur, it would be obviously impossible to prolong the fast till the closing prayer of Neilah. Besides, one would have to wait for the following Yom Kippur, 354 to 384 years, figuring a year for a day, according to the Jewish calendar.”

According to Eisenstein, one rabbi advised that observing Jews should not settle in high latitudes at all, to avoid the question. The problem has not been entirely settled even today — indeed, it’s been compounded, as Jewish astronauts can now orbit the earth and may one day colonize other worlds.

“Courting in Church”

A young gentleman happened to sit at church in a pew adjoining one in which sat a young lady for whom he conceived a sudden and violent passion, and was desirous of entering into a courtship on the spot; but the place not favoring a formal declaration, the exigency of the case suggested the following plan: he politely handed his fair neighbor a Bible opened, with a pin stuck in the following text:

‘And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another.’

She returned it, pointing to the verse in Ruth:

‘Then she fell on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, and said unto him, Why have I found grace in thine eyes, seeing I am a stranger?’

He returned the book, pointing to the following:

‘Having many things to write unto you, I would not with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full.’

A marriage soon after resulted from this Biblical interview.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, February 1867

Nearer My God

Buzz Aldrin celebrated communion on the moon. From his 2009 book Magnificent Desolation:

So, during those first hours on the moon, before the planned eating and rest periods, I reached into my personal preference kit and pulled out the communion elements along with a three-by-five card on which I had written the words of Jesus: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.’ I poured a thimbleful of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the moon. My comments to the world were inclusive: ‘I would like to request a few moments of silence … and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.’ I silently read the Bible passage as I partook of the wafer and the wine, and offered a private prayer for the task at hand and the opportunity I had been given.

“Perhaps, if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion,” he wrote. “Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the moon in the name of all mankind — be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience that by giving thanks to God.”


In his Notebooks, Samuel Butler tells a story of Herbert Clarke’s 10-year-old son:

His mother had put him to bed and, as he was supposed to have a cold, he was to say his prayers in bed. He said them, yawned and said, ‘The real question is whether there is a God or no,’ on which he instantly fell into a sweet and profound sleep which forbade all further discussion.

Elsewhere Butler wrote, “What is faith but a kind of betting or speculation after all? It should be, ‘I bet that my Redeemer liveth.'”

All God’s Creatures

Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) loved nature and loved God — so in a 1907 book he tried to prove that animals follow the 10 commandments:

  • Thou shalt not steal: “A stick found in the woods is the property of the Rook that discovers it, and doubly his when he has labored to bring it to his nest. This is recognized law.”
  • Thou shalt not kill: “New born Rattlesnakes will strike instantly at a stranger of any other species, but never at one of their own.”
  • Honor thy father and mother: “A Hen sets out with her Chickens a-foraging; one loiters, does not hasten up at her ‘cluck cluck’ of invitation and command; consequently he gets lost and dies.”
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery: “The promiscuous animals to-day–the Northwestern Rabbit and the Voles–are high in the scale of fecundity, low in the scale of general development, and are periodically scourged by epidemic plagues.”
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness: “Oftentimes a very young Hound will jump at a conclusion, think, or hope, he has the trail, then allowing his enthusiasm to carry him away, give the first tongue, shouting in Hound language, ‘Trail!’ The other Hounds run to this, but if a careful examination shows that he was wrong, the announcer suffers in the opinion of the pack, and after a few such blunders, that individual is entirely discredited.”
  • Thou shalt not covet: “A Hen had made a nest in a certain place, and was already sitting. Later another Hen, desiring the same nest, took possession several times during the owner’s brief absence, adding some of her own eggs, and endeavoring to sit. The result was a state of war, and the eggs of both Hens were destroyed.”

Actually, he runs out of gas here — Seton was unable to convince even himself that animals avoid making graven images, swearing, or working on Sunday. So he concludes The Natural History of the Ten Commandments by deciding that “Man is concerned with all” the commandments, “the animals only with the last six.”


  • Douglas Adams claimed that the funniest three-digit number is 359.
  • Romeo has more lines than Juliet, Iago than Othello, and Portia than Shylock.
  • Friday the 13th occurs at least once a year.
  • “By nature, men love newfangledness.” — Chaucer
  • John was the only apostle to die a natural death.

The Paradox of Dives and Lazarus

The Gospel of Luke contains a parable about a rich man and a beggar. Both men die, and the rich man is consigned to hell while the beggar is received into the bosom of Abraham. The rich man pleads for mercy, but Abraham tells him that in his lifetime he received good things and the beggar evil things: “now he is comforted and thou art tormented.” The rich man then begs that his brothers be warned of what lies in store for them, but Abraham rejects this plea as well, saying, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead.”

Now, writes E.V. Milner:

Suppose … that this last request of Dives had been granted; suppose, in fact, that some means were found to convince the living, whether rich men or beggars, that ‘justice would be done’ in a future life, then, it seems to me, an interesting paradox would emerge. For if I knew that the unhappiness which I suffer in this world would be recompensed by eternal bliss in the next world, then I should be happy in this world. But being happy in this world I should fail to qualify, so to speak, for happiness in the next world. Therefore, if there were such a recompense awaiting me, its existence would seem to entail that I should at least be not wholly convinced of its existence.

“Put epigrammatically, it would appear that the proposition ‘Justice will be done’ can only be true for one who believes it to be false. For one who believes it to be true justice is being done already.”