Postcard — November 22, 2017, 9:00 am

Brief History of Time

A day on Noah’s Ark

Noah’s ark was bigger than I had imagined. Having grown up with the story, I had pictured something colossal, but it still took me by surprise. It was more beautiful than I expected, too: the wood bright and fresh—handcrafted by Amish artisans—the light color emphasizing the ark’s vast bulk.

Ark Encounter, a theme park featuring a replica of Noah’s Ark built to biblical specifications, opened its doors in Williamstown, Kentucky, last year, and has since welcomed more than 1.1 million visitors. The park, which also features an outdoor stage, restaurant, zip-line course, and zoo, is a $102 million for-profit venture, built in part with $18 million in state tax breaks. The ark itself is a behemoth at 30 by 50 by 300 cubits (an ancient measurement, the distance between one’s elbow and fingertips), meaning it’s about 51 feet high, 85 feet wide, and 510 feet long, the largest timber-frame structure in the world. It is as tall as a four-story building, could fit three NASA shuttles nose-to-tail on its roof, and has the capacity of 450 semitrailers. It’s an impressive structure, and though I carry with me ambivalent memories of growing up in the church, I still found it alluring.

We approached the ticket windows. There were many of them, and an accompanying series of roped-off queues, but my partner and I were two of only a handful of people there. We each shelled out $40, climbed a ramp, and entered the ark, a long, open hall filled with effulgent gold light from a run of rustic chandeliers. The walls were made of exposed natural timber beams, like a log cabin. Up ahead, the ark widened, and signs welcomed us to various exhibits, some like little coves flowing one into the next, others with mazelike partitions. Then came the baby dinosaurs.

The ark is one of several educational ministries founded by Ken Ham, an Australian fundamentalist Christian who believes in “young-Earth” Creationism. The Bible is the infallible word of God, to be understood literally. As such, the days mentioned in the Genesis creation story must be seven twenty-four-hour days, making Earth about six thousand years old. With only six thousand years to squeeze in all of geological and biological history, dinosaurs and humans are said to have overlapped. And because God told Noah to bring “two of every kind,” dinosaurs got a ride on the ark right alongside the lions and tigers and bears.

The dinosaurs, like all the creatures in the museum, were stuffed or sculpted and positioned in rows of wooden cages alongside hay bales and clay water jugs. Some of the dinosaurs had birdlike beaks; others looked like giant lizards or mini brontosauruses; none were labeled with their scientific classifications, because they represented “kinds” which, as we learned later, is a broad category comprising animals that can mate with one another. Many species were represented by a single kind, and after the Flood, these kinds proliferated back into the diverse animal kingdom we know today. “Species [gave] rise to new species, modified characteristics develop[ed] over time, and the fittest animals survive[d] best,” one plaque read. “Sounds a lot like evolution, right?” But speciation, or “the biblical creation model of changes within kinds” still doesn’t support “molecules to man evolution,” which requires changes intrakind.

Another plaque tethered to a cage of giraffe sculptures asks: “Why is the giraffe’s neck so short?” “Today, giraffes are often considered in light of their most popular member: the long-necked giraffe. However, the other living member of the family, the okapi, has more reserved proportions. Indeed, the majority of fossil giraffes had shorter necks than the modern giraffe. This suggests that the Ark giraffes were probably more okapi-like appearance than the giraffe . . . only one example of variation within this kind.”

The caged animal sculptures ran the full length of the boat on two decks, while animatronic Noahs and other mini exhibits filled the outer rooms. As I walked through the wooden corridors, I was overwhelmed by the amount of explanatory text. I passed by video screens, timelines, models of boats to test seaworthiness, interactive doodads for kids to lift and twist and press, and a multitude of plaques—on the surface it looked much like any other science museum, except the only source quoted was the Bible.

“DIFFERENT WORLDVIEWS LEAD TO DIFFERENT CONCLUSIONS,” explained one sign, detailing the planet’s history:

6,000 years ago—CREATION

4,400 years ago—THE FLOOD

4,000 years ago—THE ICE AGE

2,000 years ago—CHRIST

My partner, who’s Jewish, stood slack-jawed before this timeline, so abbreviated from his own understanding. I knew about young-Earth believers, had expected this, but still began to laugh. The Ice Age, we read, resulted from the Flood and caused the dinosaurs’ extinction. There was no mention of how other animals and humans survived.

Most of the exhibits were focused on the minutia of ark-building and the care and keeping of its passengers. There were about 1,500 “kinds” of animals on the ark, at most, 7,000 animals in total. God instructed Noah to take seven of each “clean” animal—creatures that he could later sacrifice. For easier care and transport, Noah likely would’ve chosen baby animals. He used elaborate water-delivery systems—clay pipes running aqueductlike across the ark and delivering water into troughs, self-feeders for food delivery for the birds and smaller animals, slotted, slanted cages for manure collection, and roof windows, as stipulated in Genesis, as a rudimentary ventilation system.

His family also played a crucial role. They are depicted throughout the museum feeding and watering animals and cleaning cages. Noah’s wife, in particular, was essential personnel. “Mrs. Noah,” as she’s called, was likely quite “fit and active,” despite being six hundred years old, and cooked and wove textiles in addition to helping care for the animals. “Noah’s wife is one of the more overlooked characters of the Bible,” her introduction read, “considering every one of us contains some of her DNA!” We never learned her name.

Other plaques addressed more specific questions about the animals’ care. “How did Noah keep the polar bears cool?” posed one attached to a cage of stuffed bears. If polar bears had been on the ark, they wouldn’t have required cold to stay alive. However, polar bears weren’t actually on the ark at all. “Polar bears are members of the bear kind,” the plaque explained. “We know [they] can produce offspring with grizzlies and other brown bears, and brown bears can interbreed with black bears. Thus, the various bears of the world belong to the same bear kind. The two bears on the Ark were the ancestors of the many bears in the world today, including polar bears.”

“Were unicorns on the Ark?” asked another sign, affixed to a cage of sculpted rhinoceroses. Though older translations of the Bible include the word “unicorn,” we learn, this was likely a reference to a wild ox or rhinoceros.

We continued through the ark to find an exhibit dedicated to ridiculing Bill Nye. In 2014, Nye debated founder Ken Ham, arguing for the veracity of our fossil records, which prove that Earth is billions of years old. The screens in the room loop highly edited clips, making it seem as if he’s at a loss for words each time Ham quotes from the Bible.

By the time I watched the videos of Nye, I’d stopped laughing; I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being trolled. And in a way, I was—because Ark Encounter’s greatest vitriol is reserved not for Bill Nye, or any full-blown heathens, but for those interested in thoughtfully engaging with both science and spirituality, who think the Bible could be operating on a metaphorical level. On one wall, a red serpent wound its way around a gilded inscription: “If I can convince you that the Flood was not real, then I can convince you that Heaven and Hell are not real.”

In a far corner of the ark one exhibit was set off by thick glass doors. The room was dark, its backlit shelves casting a glow on colorful children’s stories of Noah and the Flood. When I slipped inside, I felt at peace among the books, recognizing Veggie Tales characters, and Who Built the Ark? from my childhood. But as I moved closer, I realized the display is titled “7D’s of Deception”—the cutesy illustrations of lions and flamingos marching two-by-two are apparently the enemy. Atheists, the exhibit said, “use fairy tale arks to mock the Bible,” and the presence of “fanciful objects attack the truthfulness of scripture.” Beside me, a pair of little boys stared at the books in horror. I staggered out into the light, blinked the dinosaurs back into focus, and let my eyes readjust.

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Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

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