“The whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum.” – Henry Havelock Ellis
We’ll start this little fascinating research with three different short stories. One of them is somewhat fictitious. The other two are based on fact. Two of them (not necessarily the same two!) have been widely spread over the Internet and are simply quoted here. The third has been kept relatively in secret. Which is which? Let’s leave this as an exercise for the reader.
Story 1 – The Indians and the Winter
It was autumn, and the Indians on the remote reservation asked their new chief if the winter was going to be cold or mild.
Since he was an Indian Chief in a modern society, he had never been taught the old secrets. When he looked at the sky, he couldn’t tell what the weather was going to be. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, he replied to his tribe that the winter was indeed going to be cold and that the members of the village should collect firewood to be prepared.
Also, being a practical leader, after several days he got an idea. He went to the phone booth, called the weather service and asked, “Is the coming winter going to be cold?”
“It looks like this winter is going to be quite cold indeed,” the meteorologist at the weather service responded.
The chief accordingly went back to his people and told them to collect even more wood in order to be prepared.
A week later, he called the weather service again.
“Is it going to be a very cold winter?”
“Yes, it’s definitely going to be a very cold winter.”
This time the chief instructed his people to collect every scrap of wood they could find.
Two weeks later, he called the weather service again.
“Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?”
“Absolutely,” the man replied. “It’s going to be one of the coldest winters ever.”
“How can you be so sure?” the chief asked.
The weatherman replied: “The Indians are collecting wood like crazy…”
Story 2 – On Space Shuttles and a Horse’s Ass
The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used?
Because that’s the way they built them in England and English expatriates built the US Railroads.
Why did the English build them like that?
Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.
Why did “they” use that gauge then?
Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.
Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing?
Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts.
So who built those old rutted roads?
Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.
And what about the ruts in the roads?
Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels.
Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot.
And bureaucracies live forever…
So, the next time you are handed a spec and told we have always done it that way and wonder what horse’s ass came up with that, you may be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.
Now the twist to the story…
When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank.
These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. Thiokol makes the SRBs at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses’ behinds.
So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a Horse’s ass.
Story 3 – From Ancient Rituals to Modern Kitchen Sinks
“Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus, chapter 23) – this original Biblical text in Hebrew forbids the reader to cook a young goat or a calf in his mother’s milk (some say “in his mother’s fat” – the two words are very similar in ancient Hebrew).
Why was it so important for the author to forbid this specific type of cooking?
Apparently, by examining the context and matching it against old known rituals, the author was referring to some particular ancient ceremony: The pagan peoples of the region where the ancient Hebrews lived had several such rituals, opposed by the Hebrews. In one of them they practiced the killing of a young calf or a goat, and used his mother’s milk or fat to cook it and probably sacrifice it to their gods.
Almost a thousand years later, in the beginning of the first millennium, in a very different environment, the old texts were reviewed with a totally different mind-set. Every word counted, and the so-called “words of God” had to be fulfilled to the very last detail. Then this turned into a ban on consuming most kinds of food containing meat and milk at the same time.
During years to come, just to be on the safe side, so to speak, chickens and other birds were to join the celebration. It took about one thousand more years to gradually form a very detailed codex of rules, dictating exactly how many hours should pass between eating a steak and enjoying some cheese. How should the pots and pans be purified in between? What should be the temperature of the water used to clean the dishes, in order to prepare them for the other kind of food?
Today, in many Jewish religious homes (as well as in the kitchens of the Israeli Defense Forces!), you’ll simply find two sets of dishes: One for meat-based food, and the other for milk-based food. In many of these homes you’ll find two separate kitchen sinks for this purpose. And of-course stainless steel is preferred, as it is less porous, and stands a lower chance of holding some microscopic residue of the opposing food, God help us.
These were our three nice stories. By now you should have already guessed the immortal truth behind all this. In his book ‘The Selfish Gene’, Richard Dawkins introduces the “Meme”. Memes, like some viruses, pass from one brain to another. You can plant a meme and track its progress. A meme is a basic unit of the replication of ideas, and sort of has its own life. Many of us nowadays, who often use the Internet to forward rumors, have probably contributed to the progress of some memes.
Cults may or may not be based on true historical facts, or they may be based on a mixture of facts, legends and speculations. Sometimes when you just speculate things, initially it looks somewhat detached from reality. When you mention the same things for a long time, the very fact of doing so repeatedly creates the impression that it’s based on facts. Experiments by psychologists even proved that people tend to develop seemingly real memories of old events, when being under some pressure to believe those events actually happened. Furthermore, many times, half-truths mixed with lies (whether intentionally or innocently) are much more convincing than the absolute truth.
The following story, perhaps a myth as well (bearing several variations), also gained much publicity in the electronic media recently:
Story 4 – Thou Shalt Not Climb the Stairs
It starts with a cage containing five monkeys.
Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result – all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.
Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.
Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace the third original monkey with a new one, then the fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.
After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been done around there.